Fans in Spain Reveal Their Prejudices, and Social Media Fuels the Hostilities (New York Times)

Someone threw a banana at Dani Alves, who plays soccer for Barcelona, during a recent game.C reditAlejandro Garcia/European Pressphoto Agency

MADRID — Spain’s sports fans have given Europe a version of the Donald Sterling racism scandal roiling America.

While prejudice in sports is nothing new in Spain, a spate of racist and anti-Semitic abuses has set off a round of chagrin and soul-searching — and even a government clampdown — that has raised broad questions about why such behavior seems so hard to combat.

The latest example occurred this week when almost 18,000 people posted comments on Twitter with a profane and anti-Semitic hashtag after Real Madrid’s loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final of Europe’s main basketball tournament on Sunday.

The tide of comments prompted Jewish organizations to file a lawsuit in a Barcelona court on Tuesday that is expected to be handed to the office of Spain’s attorney general. On Wednesday, Maccabi Tel Aviv said that while it had dealt with a handful of disrespectful pro-Palestinian activists while playing in Spain in the past, “nothing like this has ever been experienced.”

The postings were condemned by the Anti-Defamation League, the New York-based advocacy group that last week released its first global survey on anti-Semitism, which showed that 29 percent of Spanish adults harbor prejudicial stereotypes about Jews. “The sheer number and intensity of anti-Semitic hatred unleashed via Twitter in Spain is alarming and outrageous,” Abraham H. Foxman, the organization’s national director, said Thursday.

The anti-Semitic outbursts came the same week the Barcelona soccer club dismissed an employee of its museum after she was caught on video making monkey gestures toward an African player during a game between Llagostera and Racing Santander on Sunday. Llagostera said the police would investigate the matter and banned the woman from its stadium. That episode followed one last month in which someone threw a banana at Dani Alves, a Brazilian member of the Barcelona soccer team, during a match against Villarreal.

Taken together, the outbursts lay bare an undercurrent of prejudice in Europe that has persisted through generations. Social media appears to have fueled the hostilities, while also serving to counter them.

Esteban Ibarra, the president of the Movement Against Intolerance, a Spanish advocacy group, said it had identified 1,500 websites, pages or blogs in Spain that promote racism or anti-Semitism, compared with 300 to 400 five years ago. He attributed the rise, in part, to the growing political success of extremists in countries like Hungary and Greece.

“The fact that Spain doesn’t have an extreme-right party with an institutional presence doesn’t mean that we don’t have extremists who have been encouraged and coordinate with others in Europe and make their presence most felt in sports,” Mr. Ibarra said. “What we’re seeing in cases like Maccabi and Dani Alves is that the groups of ultra sports fans are themselves infiltrated by neo-Nazis.”

After Mr. Alves responded to the taunt by eating the banana in front of Villareal fans, he inspired a wave of videos and messages from athletes and politicians who posed with peeled bananas or ate them in solidarity.

The anti-racism response inspired by Mr. Alves was widely repeated outside Spain, even in countries like Italy that have also witnessed significant racism in sports. Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, shared a banana in front of the cameras with Cesare Prandelli, the coach of Italy’s national soccer team.

Despite Mr. Renzi’s banana episode, however, the Italian police intervened on Wednesday at the training camp in Florence of the national team to stop racist chants against the striker Mario Balotelli. Mr. Balotelli was born to Ghanaian immigrants and was raised by an Italian foster family.

He has faced racist abuse in Italy, in England and during a 2012 match in the Portuguese city of Porto, for which the club there was fined 20,000 euros, more than $27,000.

In January this year, A. C. Milan abandoned a soccer match after one of its black players, Kevin-Prince Boateng, led a walkout because of racist abuses by opposing fans.

Xavier Torrens, a sociologist and professor of political science at the University of Barcelona, said anti-Semitism in Spain had been underestimated by sports officials, who see it as a collection of isolated, anecdotal episodes. By contrast, the National Basketball Association in the United States reacted firmly last month by imposing a lifetime ban on Mr. Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, for making racist comments.

“In Spain, club directors — whether in soccer or any other sport — are not black, Gypsy, Jewish or Arab,” Mr. Torrens said, “so they don’t belong to any group that could feel some empathy for minorities.” Racism or anti-Semitism, he added, is “never a problem in their daily life, so that explains why such officials don’t take adequate measures and are so far from what was done in the N.B.A.”

The old-boy network that dominates English sports also drew criticism this week when the chief executive of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore, escaped dismissal Monday despite having sent emails with sexual innuendos about women.

Pledges by governments and sports authorities to combat the problem appear to have done little, despite specific episodes resulting in fines or bans. FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, has promised zero tolerance toward racism at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which begins June 12, without detailing how it would penalize unacceptable behavior.

Steps against anti-Semitism have been even more tepid in Spain. “Anti-Semitism exists here,” Mr. Torrens, the sociologist, said, “but the problem is that Spanish society is much less aware of its anti-Semitism than in almost any other Western country.”

Even if such problems have become more prevalent in Spanish sports, he continued, it would be wrong to accuse Spanish society as a whole of racism and anti-Semitism. In the decade before 2008 and the bursting of Spain’s construction bubble, the country successfully integrated about five million migrants — more than 10 percent of its population. Even the subsequent economic crisis and the sharp increase in joblessness did not set off a wave of xenophobia.

But most surveys in Spain show that “21st-century prejudices are the same as those in medieval times,” said Mr. Torrens, adding that the prejudices were most often directed at Gypsies, Arabs and Jews. “That must say something about how little the authorities have done to respond to the problem,” he added.

After the recent basketball game that drew anti-Semitic comments on Twitter, the Spanish interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, warned that those who posted offensive messages could face arrest. The police must help “eradicate from the web all the comments that incite hatred and xenophobia,” he said.

Maria Royo, a spokeswoman for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, said she could not recall an outburst of anti-Semitism like the one that came after Maccabi’s victory, but that the episode showed “the venom is here and comes out when you least expect it.”

The Israeli club’s general manager, Danny Federman, said in a statement, “It is very disappointing to see the rush of anti-Semitism following a well-fought competition.”

Several of the online comments included profanities about Jews, while others related to the Holocaust. One message, sent from the account of Guillermo de Alcázar, said, “Now I understand Hitler and his hatred for the Jews.”

In their court filing, the Jewish associations supplied a picture of Mr. de Alcázar and identified him among those who are suspected of violating a Spanish law that forbids the incitement of hatred. The associations said they had centered their inquiry on a profane hashtag that became a trending topic on Twitter after the basketball final and that was used by almost 18,000 people — most of them anonymous.