Sunday’s La Liga match between Barcelona and Espanyol was an eventful affair. The animosity-fueled Catalan Derby was as charged as usual, and this one in particular had some notable flashpoints that inspired the league office to open an investigation. Just, not into any of the actual bad stuff that happened.
During the weekend’s match, Barcelona’s French defender Samuel Umtiti was reportedly the target of a racial slur when Espanyol forward Sergio García called him a “black shit.” Umtiti’s teammate Gerard Piqué was injured after a reckless challenge at the hands of another Espanyol player, and also was subject to mass chants by the home crowd calling him a “faggot,” and referring to his wife, the pop star Shakira, as a “whore,” and claiming that his son is actually the illegitimate child of a former Espanyol player of African descent.
None of those incidents rose to the level of being officially addressed by La Liga president, Javier Tebas. No, what prickled his ass was when Piqué put his finger to his lips in the “hush” gesture after scoring a goal.
The beef here actually goes back a ways. Technically, it dates back for about a decade, but even longer if you want to go to the start of this rivalry whose intensity isn’t properly appreciated by those who don’t closely follow Spanish soccer. Barcelona and Espanyol really and truly hate each other. As to the specifics of this case, though, Espanyol fans and Piqué have had a testy relationship for the bulk of Piqué’s career. This is primarily the result of Piqué being the unabashedly brash and beautiful bastard he is, and Espanyol fans responding to this brashness entirely out of proportion.
For years Pericos fans have serenaded Piqué with chants insulting him and his family with sexist and homophobic language, or wishing death to his son, Milan. La Liga hasn’t taken any steps to put a stop to these chants. The only reported response to this kind of abuse is when Espanyol allegedly banned some fans who held up a large banner which in effect called Shakira a “whore” during a past home match against Barça.
But this specific beef is even more recent. Just a couple weeks ago, Barcelona and Espanyol were drawn against one another in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol upset Barça in the first match at home, winning by a score of 1-0. Barcelona turned things around, though, winning the return leg 2-0, and thereby progressing to the next round of the competition. Naturally, there were pointed words exchanged in the aftermath.
Piqué started things by taking a dig the rival club, referring to Espanyol as “Espanyol de Cornellà.” This is a subtle barb meant to poke fun at the fact that Espanyol—full name Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol de Barcelona—no longer play their home matches inside Barcelona city limits and instead have relocated their home stadium to the nearby suburb of Cornellà. It would be akin to someone making fun of one of the stadium location of a certain New York NFL team by calling them the New Jersey Jets. It’s a light jab, but one that stings because of the understandable sensitivity of fans in an intensely community-centric sport like soccer.
Barça midfielder Sergio Busquets joined in on the fun after the second leg of the Copa tie. Taking Espanyol’s players to task for what he believed was their over-exuberance after coming away from the first leg’s victory a little too happy, Busquets said “[Espanyol] celebrated in Cornellà as if they had passed the round, but the tie lasts 180 minutes and we put things in their place.” Again, a light jab, but a targeted one he knew would connect.
Sure enough, Espanyol were none too happy. The club released a statement in which they announced they’d formally petitioned Spanish soccer’s anti-violence committee to investigate Piqué and Busquets on the grounds that those players’ light ribbing ran the risk of “incit[ing] violence, racism, xenophobia and intolerance in the sport.” Here’s the BBC’s translation of some parts of Espanyol’s statement that targeted the Barcelona players directly:
[Espanyol’s statement] said Pique’s comments were “clearly disrespectful” and “flirted very dangerously with xenophobic attitudes” which “clearly incite violence and intolerance in our sport”.
The statement added: “In relation to the statements of Mr Busquets, it is inconceivable an athlete declares a rival cannot celebrate a victory, achieved with effort and in a fair fight, like the one that our team got in the first leg of the tie.
“We consider the declarations of Busquets can generate violence and intolerance.”
From here, things go from claims that making fun of Espanyol’s suburban stadium might potentially incite xenophobia or racism, to some real-deal actual racism.
This weekend’s Catalan Derby, coming just about a week after the second leg of the Copa del Rey tie, was always going to be heated. It was an ugly match, and not only because of the waterlogged pitch that made the game look more like rugby than soccer. Risky challenges and forceful tackles abounded. One of which was the ridiculously late one that dinged up Piqué’s knee. Another was when Sergio García slid into Umtiti’s legs with the studs of his boot showing, which thankfully Umtiti was able to leap over before taking the brunt of the damage.
That incident still sparked the tensions on both sides, as players from both teams got up in each other’s faces. A segment from Spanish soccer show El dia después captured some of the jawing between Umtiti, García, and other players, as well as the chanting aimed at Piqué:
What the camera’s didn’t capture is what incensed Umtiti as the match ended. You can see Piqué attempted to drag Umtiti away from García at the end of the video above, but there isn’t any video of the incident that inspired Umtiti’s ire.
For that, all we have is a report from Barcelona-based sports daily, Sport, that claims García called Umtiti a “black shit.” The brouhaha continued off into the tunnel, but the referee’s report didn’t note any particularly heated exchanges there. Reports did say García later reached out to Umtiti in the locker room to apologize, and that Umtiti accepted.
While Umtiti himself hasn’t spoken publicly on the incident, García has. He posted a bizarre non-apology on his private Instagram page, in which he doesn’t seem to deny that he said what he’s reported to have said to Umtiti, but notes that because his wife is “ethnically gypsy” and he is close with his brother-in-law, who is apparently African-American, he can’t be racist:
Sport’s translation of the message:
“First of all, to clarify, I already spoke with Samuel yesterday,” wrote Garcia on Insta.
“In no way was it my intention to be racist. You all know my wife is from gypsy roots and I grew up in a neighbourhood with every race in the world.
“My brother-in-law, who I have a firm friendship with, is African-American too. In the tension of the game a lot of things are said that should stay on the pitch.”
A combination of the old “yeah, I said it, but I didn’t mean it in the racist way” and the “I have a black friend” defense. A clever, tolerant man, this Sergio García.
Anyway, the league has not seen fit to open any investigation into García’s alleged words, nor into the fans’ chants at Piqué and his family. What they are apparently investigating, however, is this goal celebration by Piqué:
La Liga wasted no time officially denouncing Piqué’s “hush” gesture, and said they are looking into it to decide if it rises to the level of a “public provocation or an offensive gesture,” in which case Piqué could be suspended for one to three league matches.
So there you have it. La Liga’s value system is pretty clear by now. Badass goal celebrations: unacceptable. Harmless banter: bad. Fans calling the wives of players “whores”: acceptable. Racially abusing opponents: eh, it’s part of the game. Spanish soccer is very good sometimes. Other times, it’s the fucking worst.