DOHA, Qatar — Lucía Mbomío was never a particularly devoted soccer fan. When she was a child, the sport intruded on her consciousness only rarely, whenever a World Cup or a European Championship rolled into view. As she watched, though, she found herself cheering not only for her native Spain, but also for France, the Netherlands and even England.
Those other teams appealed to her not because they played with any particular beauty or because they could be relied on to deliver glory, and it was not because they had an individual player she idolized. Instead, she said, it was something more visceral that drew her in. When she saw those teams, she realized, she saw herself reflected back.
“I felt close to them,” said Mbomío, a 41-year-old journalist and author. “I was happy when they won because they had Black players. These were countries with white majorities, but in their teams they had people like me. They were recognizing those people. It was a message. It said to me, ‘I exist.’”
For a long time, Spain could not make her feel the same way. In the 1990s and 2000s, Spain’s national team had a smattering of Black players, but often — as in the cases of the midfielders Donato and Marcos Senna and the striker Catanha — they were Brazilians who had been given citizenship after moving to Spain to play professionally.
“There was always a suspicion that they had been naturalized purely for sporting reasons,” said Moha Gerehou, a Spanish writer who focuses on racism and immigration. “They didn’t represent the normalization of Spain’s diverse communities.” That, perhaps, explains why Mbomío found herself particularly drawn to the exception, Vicente Engonga, who was born in Spain to Guinean parents. “He was like me,” she said.
A generation later, Mbomío can look at Spain’s national team and, for the first time, start to see in it a reflection both of herself and her community. There are four Black or mixed heritage players on Luis Enrique’s World Cup squad this year: the reserve goalkeeper Robert Sánchez, the defender Alejandro Baldé and the forwards Ansu Fati and Nico Williams.
Their roots are different — they can variously trace their families’ origins to Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Dominica and Ghana — but their backgrounds are the same. Fati has lived in Spain since he was 5. The other three were all born in the country. These are not players who have, in effect, been recruited to bolster the team’s hopes. “They are Black and Spanish,” Mbomío said.
They have appeared only occasionally during the tournament so far — a couple of substitute appearances and one start each for Baldé and Williams, a bit of time off the bench for Fati — but their presence alone is significant, said Rúben Bermúdez, a Spanish director and photographer.
“Representation may not be the most important thing in the fight against racism, but it is something that matters,” Bermúdez said. “Seeing these players in the national team of the country where they were born or grew up is very important.”
Bermúdez went one step further than Mbomío as a child, and switched his fandom to the Netherlands exclusively: His first memory of soccer, he said, was seeing Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, that country’s first two great Black stars, help their team win the 1988 European Championship. A monochrome Spain left him cold. “I didn’t care if they won, or even actively wanted them to lose,” he said.
That Spain’s squad has become more diverse is not a surprise. How much of the country’s population identifies as Black is not clear; like elsewhere in Europe, the official census does not require that people identify to a specific ethnic group.
Estimates vary from 700,000, according to one government study, to almost double that, according to the historian Antumi Toasijé, once sub-Saharan Africans, Black Latin Americans and those of African descent but born in Spain are included. “Spain’s diversity has become more patent,” Mbomío said. “They could not ignore it any longer.”
Mbomío, Bermúdez and Gerehou all grew up at a time when the only role Black people played in Spanish public life was in sports and music. There were few Black characters on television. There were certainly no shows — other than American imports like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Family Matters” — telling Black stories.
When Black people were discussed, it was routinely in a specific context. Mbomío used the contrast between the two forms of the Spanish verb to be — “estar,” temporary and transient, and “ser,” more permanent, existential — to illustrate it. “We were people who arrived, arrived, arrived, as African immigrants landing in dinghies, victims of human trafficking,” she said. “We could be coming here, but we could not be here.”
In recent years, and with conversations sparked by the killing of George Floyd, that has started to change. Spain is slowly, belatedly, starting to recognize its diversity, to reckon with the issue of race. Mbomío regards it as a “type of spring,” a flowering of Black art, photography and literature. “We can tell stories that until now have only rarely seen the light,” she said.
Bermúdez is not confident that will make any immediate difference to the marginalization of the country’s Black community. “There is no discussion about race in Spain,” he said. “It’s still a taboo, or it’s reduced to, ‘This isn’t important, we are all equal.’” Mbomío said she tended to find that most interviews on the subject started with a question: Does racism exist?
Like other soccer leagues in Europe, the Spanish professional league has had incidents of racial abuse. Last year, after his brother, Iñaki, publicly denounced racist insults hurled at him on the field by opponents, Nico Williams spoke of the reality of discrimination but the general acceptance he has felt as the son of Ghanaian immigrants.
“No one is born a racist,’’ Nico Williams told the Spanish newspaper Marca. “With education at home and education in school, I think little by little racism is going to be disappearing.”
Likewise, a visible, undeniable Black presence on the national soccer team is not a panacea. Gerehou, for one, worries that it may function as a version of what has become known as the Obama Effect, shutting down a conversation rather than igniting one, the illusion of change inhibiting an actual transformation.
“There is a risk that people can say, OK, there are Black players in the team, there is no problem,” he said. “It is the same logic that if there is a Black president, then racism must no longer exist. Representation has limits. Things like music and sports are not always a faithful reflection of reality. There might be Black players in the Spain squad, but that does not mean that tomorrow there will be Black directors of banks or Black lawmakers or Black media executives.”
He does, though, see the presence of Black, indisputably Spanish players as a step forward. “It’s important the national team reflects the reality of society,” he said. “We are white and Black and North African and Asian, but we are all Spanish.” For Bermúdez, it is a sign that the country is, at last, starting to “accept and recognize its historical and current diversity.”
Mbomío’s conclusion is slightly simpler. She remembers those tournaments as a child, when she chose not to support the team carrying her flag but her reflection, and how much it would have meant to her not to have had to make that choice. Fati, Baldé, Williams and Sánchez — players who are both Black and Spanish — mean the contrast is not quite so stark. “It is a demonstration,” she said, “that we exist.”
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