Iñaki Williams had just begun the long walk to the bench when he heard something. There were 20 minutes left and Athletic Bilbao were drawing 1-1 at Espanyol, but that didn’t matter much any more. He was heading towards where Iker Muniain was about to take corner, yet his mind was elsewhere now. Barely a metre from Muniain as he ran up and bent the ball into the box, the pair crossing paths, his attention was drawn to the stands instead. Williams slowed slightly, head turned, hearing it more clearly now. He couldn’t tell how many, but it was too many. There was a hint of a challenge, but he kept going. Then, as turned up the touchline he did stop. “Sons of bitches, all of you,” he muttered. As he sat on the bench, someone leant across: “What happened?” he was asked. “Uh! Uh! Uh!” he said.
“I leave here a bit sad, because of the draw, but above all because I suffered racist abuse,” Williams said afterwards. “It’s something that no black player, or any player of any race wants to hear. It’s totally unacceptable: people should come to the ground to enjoy it, to support their team, to enjoy football, which is a team sport, a sport of friendship. It’s a sad day.”
As for the referees’ report, that didn’t say anything. Nor was the game stopped, or any announcement made: the only game to have been stopped in Spain remains the recent Rayo-Albacete match, postponed after Rayo fans’ songs accusing Roman Zozulya of being a Nazi, an irony not lost this weekend.
There is a reason nothing was done on Saturday: the referee had not been aware of the alleged abuse. While it had been picked up by a camera following Williams around the pitch, it had not been heard by others or on the general broadcast. Muniain told the referee, José María Sánchez Martínez, after the match but because neither he, nor the delegates from the league or the federation directly witnessed it, it could not be included in his report, as per existing protocols. The RFEF statement explaining that took more than a day to be released, and was focused more on why there hadn’t been action than on how they would act. Having been picked up by television, though, those protocols may now change and many are calling for players’ complaints about abuse to be presumed to be true as a starting point.
This is the second time that Williams has been subjected to alleged racist abuse. In 2016, he faced monkey chants from members of Sporting Gijón’s neo-Nazi group, the Ultra Boys. “I didn’t realise at the time,” he recalled in a documentary on racism in football aired last week. “It was the referee who noticed. He came to me and said: ‘Iñaki, they’re insulting you, there is racist abuse. I’m going to stop the game so an announcement is made over the PA so it doesn’t happen again.’ It struck me, because it was the first time it has happened to me.” Sporting had part of that stand closed in punishment and there are similar suggestions this time.
Espanyol said they were trying to identify those responsible, although there was a certain defensiveness when it came to the club’s culpability, an insistence that chants had not come from the official singing sections and was only a few people. With sad inevitability, some have also seen it through club allegiances. The Federation seemed keener to explain why it hadn’t acted than it was to do so. The league president, Javier Tebas, a supporter of the far-right VOX and a man who previously said he wished there was a “Spanish Le Pen”, described this as “step backwards”. He also said: “The measures adopted over the last years have to improve, given that, while it is true that there has been a decrease in insults, violent attitudes and behaviour, they are insufficient.”
There is a certain false equivalency in how all insults are pursued, and still a lingering sense that racism specifically has not been taken seriously enough. Yet there are some hopes that this might start something. Across Spain, there were messages of condemnation, a sign of a shift – even if only on the surface and even if certain messages were harder to swallow, given where and who they came from. Marca gave over its front cover to lead on “We are all Iñaki Williams”, alongside the slogan: “Stop racism.” The president of the government tweeted his support for Williams. As one columnist put it: “It shames us to watch that documentary and see how lax we were in eradicating it, accepting it; let’s not feel the same way if there is another documentary in 20 years’ time.”
Williams is only the second black player to play for Athletic, after Jonas Ramalho. He tells the story of how his mother broke down in tears during a family holiday in the desert, recalling her journey from Accra to northern Africa, where she climbed the fence into the Spanish enclave of Melilla. She was pregnant with Williams at the time and he was born in Basurto, Bilbao. “I am proud to be black and I am proud to be Basque,” he says. “I want to open doors.”
• Atlético Madrid are used to being the second-best team in the city, but not the third. Held by Leganés on Sunday in the noon kick-off, by six o’clock they were no longer even in a Champions League place, having been overtaken by Getafe. And yet it was not just that they could not get beyond a 0-0 draw with Leganés, bottom-of-the-table Leganés. It was not just that they have been knocked out of the Cup and that this is their worst start under Diego Simeone. It was not even that all of these words are in El País’s match report: “comatose”, “lost”, “sunk”, “horrendous”, “calamity”, “Dantesque,” and “depression”.
No. It was the anxiety, the vulnerability. Worse, it was the fact that it didn’t really stand out; it was the weird, disconcerting feeling of normality and acceptance, resignation from the team that rebelled like no one else. The sense that something is not right, something deep; that this just isn’t them, and certainly isn’t Simeone. All of it summed up in a phrase that jarred. “Before, we would have lost this,” he said, which quite apart from being a strange thing to feel happy about simply isn’t true. Before, Atlético – his Atlético – would have won this, or believed they would; 0-0 with 20 minutes to go used to be their kind of place. Not any more.
Maybe it’s not his either. His name was chanted at the start, a very pointed show of support, but something is slipping there too. For a moment, the man Unai Emery once described as “war personified” looked like he wasn’t fighting any more, as if the man in black had become an ordinary bloke and the football team he was watching wasn’t really his. The technical area at the Wanda Metropolitano is huge anyway, and only one person is allowed in there, but it might never have looked so big, so empty, maybe even lonely, as it did on Sunday. Usually, Atlético’s manager fills the space, shouting and straining, dashing about and kicking every ball, conducting the crowd as well as his players, but not this time: for much of a cold, still morning, he walked around it, going nowhere in particular with his hands in his pockets.
• Quique Setién’s Barcelona had the ball. And then, suddenly, they didn’t. And, in a flash and a single pass, Valencia had a penalty. It was only 10 minutes in, but already it was all falling apart for Barcelona. Marc-André ter Stegen saved that penalty, diving left to deny Maxi. He also saved a shot that flew back off the bar via his hands. But he couldn’t stop everything and Barcelona could not stop Valencia. “I got my revenge,” Maxi said after he had scored both in a 2-0 win, their first against Barcelona at Mestalla in over a decade. It might have been more: Valencia had a third goal from Gabriel ruled out. Messi had 11 shots, of the team’s 14, but only rarely looked like he might score. He looks like he might end up getting bored. “Very, very worrying,” said the front of Sport – and it was no exaggeration for once. “Lost,” El Mundo Deportivo called them.
• Getafe needed a couple of big handball decisions to go their way to beat Betis. And Joaquín wasn’t impressed with the man in the VAR room over in Las Rozas, half an hour west. “Next time he’s got us, I ask him to go to Punta Cana instead,” he said.
• None of Real Madrid’s forwards have scored since Valencia, but no matter. Varane, Casemiro and Nacho have been enough of late. A 1-0 win in Valladolid took them back to the top for the first time since week eight, and while it wasn’t pretty or even particularly impressive, they look increasingly likely to stay there. There’s a solidity and a competitiveness about them that speaks of Zidane’s determination to win the league, plus a sense that somehow they always will find a way. Usually from a cross or a dead ball – and that’s fine.
• “Poo,” Mendilibar called it, so it’s fair to say he wasn’t impressed with Eibar’s performance.
• Get well soon, Chimy. The Osasuna forward, who might have been more fun to watch than anyone else this season, the embodiment everything his team and his fans want to be, a one-man wrecking ball who literally headed in his own ‘cross’ one day, has torn his ACL.