PARIS (AP)-About 20 years ago, English soccer was decimated by fan violence, in and outside of stadiums.Now as England prepares to play Spain in an exhibition game on Wednesday, its top league is regarded as the wealthiest and best-marketed in the world, and the Spanish are under scrutiny for racism.English authorities have mostly eliminated taunts and racial epithets from stadiums, refused entry to known troublemakers and done away with overcrowding by insisting on all-seat grounds.Anti-racism activists say Spain has one of the bigger problems on the continent. Because England’s players endured racial taunts in Madrid in 2004, the location of this match was switched from Madrid to Sevilla.The problem lingers.Real Madrid’s radical fans, the Ultra Sur, made fascist gestures and shouted extremist slogans during a match against Osasuna on Jan. 18. In his match report, referee Alfonso Perez Burrull cited “extremist or radical symbolism,” and chants that made reference to “the gas chamber, death to Osasuna” and loyalty to fascism.
Three days later, Spain’s soccer federation fined Real Madrid 3,000 euros ($3,900).In August, Spain’s national basketball team defended an ad campaign in which it posed with its eyes “slanted” to mimmic Chinese people as part of a Beijing Games campaign.Racism hit Formula One racing last year, when Lewis Hamilton, who is black, endured racial slurs at F1 testing in Barcelona. Spanish fans wore black face-paint and held up banners saying “Hamilton Family” at the Montmelo circuit.Javier Martinez, a spokesman for Anti-Racism in Madrid, thinks Spain is in denial.”There is a level of racism in society because, in some ways, it’s socially accepted,” Martinez said. “It’s used in a humoristic or comic form and is tolerated and accepted.”Simon Kuper, author of “Football Against the Enemy,” compares Spain now to England of the 1980s. The racist jokes stopped in England, Kuper says, because the general public had enough of them.”There was a social mood, society was no longer accepting that stuff in England,” Kuper said. “Football doesn’t tend to take the lead, but by the ’90s it was no longer that acceptable in Britain anymore to make racist jokes.”England started tackling its problems after two triggering events. The first was when Liverpool fans rioted in Brussels’ Heysel Stadium before the 1985 European Cup final against Juventus, and 39 spectators died as a wall collapsed on them. The second occurred four years later, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death on the overcrowded terraces at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium at an English FA Cup semifinal game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.Along with the Taylor Report, which recommended that standing sections be eliminated by 1994, came a new attitude that insults and racial abuse would not be tolerated.”We got the ball rolling,” former Crystal Palace forward Mark Bright, who is black, said in a recent telephone interview.Bright, who also played for Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton, recalled how nasty the atmosphere used to be in England.”(Racism) was at most grounds. When I started at Port Vale in ’84-’85, you used to get abuse off your opponents, the opponents’ bench, and the crowd because there was (only) a handful (of black players) sprinkled throughout the league,” Bright said.By the mid-1990s, the Professional Footballers Association backed anti-racism campaigns such as Kick It Out, in conjunction with the Commission for Racial Equality, and Show Racism the Red Card.Bright, who is black, credits PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor as instrumental in turning the tide by “grasping the nettle and saying ‘You know what, we’ve got to do something about this.”‘Established in 1996, Show Racism the Red Card has harnessed the high profile of professional players-such as Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand-to combat racism. Through films, workshops, posters and DVDs, SRTRC sends out an anti-racism message at soccer grounds and schools across England, Scotland and Wales.”This campaign is one of the leading campaigns in trying to stamp (racism) out of the game,” Ferdinand said. “Drumming it home to the kids, that any type of racism isn’t needed. In school, anywhere, in any workplace. We are definitely on the right track, but I still think there is a long way to go.”Bright said the Kick It Out campaign gained momentum slowly but made a major impact on the psyche of football fans. Taylor phoned several leading black players in the game, including Bright, Paul Ince and Ian Wright and said, “You’re in the Premier League. I’m asking for your help,”‘ according to Bright.The British press also played a role in swaying opinions, showing up at anti-racism campaigns and writing at length about what they had seen and heard.”Without them you can’t do anything. The press are the vehicle, to say out loud, ‘You cannot abuse black players; you cannot abuse someone because of their color,”‘ Bright said.To be sure, England is not perfect. Two cases this season cast a spotlight on racism: Egyptian forward Mido was taunted with Islamaphobic chants during Middlesbrough’s match against Newcastle, and Tottenham fans insulted Portsmouth defender Sol Campbell, who is black, in September. Yet the incidents prompted outrage partly because they represented a relapse by English fans. Eleven Tottenham fans were criminally charged with indecent chanting-four pleaded guilty last month and received three-year stadium bans.In Germany and Austria, clubs and fans have struck blows against racism. During Werder Bremen’s match in November at Bochum in the Ruhr, a small group of visiting fans unveiled a Third Reich flag, prompting other Bremen fans to chant “Nazis out!” Eight fans were detained and banned by Werder Bremen from attending home matches, and the club was examining whether a nationwide ban could be implemented.As the most popular club in Austria, Rapid Vienna was a recruiting ground for the neo-Nazis in the 1980s and into the ’90s, with a prominent far-right following numbering some 500 people. Black players were regularly abused.Things are different now.”Several clubs introduced anti-racism measures ranging from awareness days, action days and ranging to a policy of equality when it comes to staff recruitment,” said Kurt Wachter, a Vienna-based coordinator for Football Against Racism in Europe. “The people who work in the stadium are relating to ethnic minorities in the community. You can see them and they feel accepted.”Wachter fears countries like Spain and Italy are lagging way behind.”That is a big challenge because a lot of football grounds are predominantly white in most parts of Europe,” Wachter added. “In Italy or Spain, some of them have not even come beyond the first step which is to accept there is a problem.”Associated Press Writers Andrew Dampf in Rome, Paul Logothetis in Madrid and Dheepthi Namasivayam in Paris contributed to this report.