On December 16, the encounter between Rayo Vallecano and Albacete Balompié in Spain’s second tier was suspended after the visiting team opted not to take to the field for the second half. The decision followed chants made from the home ultras directed towards the opposition striker Roman Zozulya, calling him a Nazi. Albacete’s decision was supported by the directors of Rayo Vallecano.
It was eventually decided that the second half of this match would be played behind closed doors, and Rayo would be punished with a fine, and the partial closure of their ultras section for two games.
La Liga’s action regarding this incident leaves a lot of questions. What line in the sand are the league drawing by suspending this game and punishing Rayo, after decades of inaction for the countless examples of racist, fascist, xenophobic, sexist, and homophobic chanting heard through the decades in Spanish football?
There’s a huge difference between insulting chants against an individual for what/who they are, and for the beliefs they hold. Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc are all targeted insults for what the individual is, the type of person they were born. On the other hand, chanting against somebody for holding political beliefs that are inherently intolerant to others, usually minority groups, is a completely different kind of thing. This is what La Liga appear to have taken a strict stand against, while allowing the former category of chanting to continue in stadia unpunished.
History between Rayo and Zozulya
Zozulya and Rayo Vallecano have history – the player was briefly on the books at Rayo in January 2017, when he lasted just half a training session before fans made it abundantly clear he was not welcome at the club. They attended the training session he took part in, and displayed a banner outlining that “Vallecas is no place for Nazis.” Very shortly after, the loan deal was terminated.
The fans at Rayo are proudly and strongly left-wing, and promote anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-homophobic, and anti-misogynistic values. When their club signed the attacker on loan in January 2017, the idea of seeing a person they believed to harbour far-right views wear the famous red sash jersey of Rayo was simply unacceptable.
In the build-up to the announcement of the signing, fans researched the background of the player, and found an abundance of evidence that links him with the far-right paramilitary organisation Azov Battalion in his native Ukraine. There are also many photographs of the player posing with Nazi, fascist, and white supremacy symbols and figures. Shortly after the incident gained national headlines, Rayo fans published a nine-page dossier on the historical ties between Zozulya and far-right groups and organisations, to explain to the world exactly the reasons behind their rejection of this signing. For his part, Zozulya completely denies the accusation he is a Nazi, and explains his political leanings and past involvement with paramilitary organisations as solely “patriotic.”
On that Sunday night, the Ukrainian forward returned to Vallecas for the first time with his current club, Albacete, and the home fans showered him him with chants of “Roman Zozulya puto Nazi!” which can be translated to “Roman Zozulya is a f***ing Nazi!”
The anti-Nazi chants were heard at various points through the first half, and at one point near the half-time break, the game was paused momentarily by the referee so that a message could be read out over the loudspeakers to the fans, ordering them to cease the chanting aimed at Zozulya.
Play was resumed, the break came, and the teams went into the dressing rooms. Fifteen minutes later, however, there was no movement as local radio station Cadena Ser reported that the directors of Albacete took the decision, backed by Rayo directors, to refuse to play the second half, out of protest against the chanting.
A club statement shortly after the game was suspended said that it was “a decision made with the sole objective of safeguarding the values of the sport we love and our competition.” The club’s narrative was that the player was distraught and even crying in the dressing room, which doesn’t tally up well with the images of him entering the dressing room cupping his ear to the Rayo fans and grinning.
So, where does La Liga stand on racism and fascism?
It was an inconclusive ending to a high-tempo game that left a sour taste in the mouth. Spanish football, and society in general, still has quite a way to go in terms of how it deals with racism and sexism.
Two weeks prior to this Zozulya incident, Atletico Madrid fans chanted “Griezmann, die!” when their former hero visited the Wanda Metropolitano stadium with Barcelona. A year before, Atletico Madrid fans came to Vallecas stadium and displayed a barrage of fascist symbolism and gestures at the La Liga fixture against Rayo, while also explicitly making Nazi salutes both before and during the game. In neither of these matches did the referee feel there was a need to pause the game and issue any warning.
One week after the suspension of Rayo-Albacete, Albacete fans were condemned for making racist insults toward opposition player Youn Diop in their B side’s clash against La Roda. No action was taken by the officials.
Deportivo La Coruña fan ‘Jimmy’ was murdered by Atletico Madrid fans before a match in 2014 and his body was thrown into the Manzanares river, which ran right by the old Calderon stadium. Atleti fans have been heard making fun of his grave incident since, in chants from their stands.
In 2014, legendary Barcelona right back Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him by Villarreal fans. He mocked the racists in the stands by picking it up and eating it before carrying on playing. His former teammate Samuel Eto’o suffered years of racist abuse most famously away to Real Zaragoza in the mid-2000s.
Many stadiums across Spain make derogatory remarks about Gerard Piqué’s wife Shakira, while the same chant can often be heard claiming that the footballer’s son is the biological offspring of a former Espanyol player, adding a touch of racism to the misogynistic chant.
So, what is it about Rayo fans’ chanting against a person whose political views, plenty of evidence suggests, is of a fascist, far-right, and violent organisation, that made the referee draw the line on this night?
The league administration announced that the second half of the Rayo-Albacete game will be played behind closed doors, and Rayo have been given a fine and will play two home games in a partially closed stadium. This, as the first time a game has been suspended for insulting chants, sets a strange precedent for La Liga moving forward, who will now have to start cracking down on all insulting chants in a much more serious manner if they are to keep in any way consistent with this Rayo punishment.