It’s one of the world’s most watched soccer leagues, featuring some of the planet’s greatest players. Except, this week, nobody is talking about the ‘beautiful game’ after the shameful racist abuse of Real Madrid star Vinícius Jr. sent LaLiga into crisis management mode.
It was only after the 10th reported incident of racist abuse aimed at Vinícius during a La Liga match since 2021, this time in Valencia on Sunday, that Spanish football and the country’s legal system finally clicked into gear.
Seven arrests were made by police on Tuesday alone, Spain’s football federation (RFEF) launched a new anti-racism campaign and ordered the partial closure of Valencia’s stadium and LaLiga formally called to be given sanctioning powers to better fight racism.
LaLiga told CNN it does not have the authority to impose punishments on clubs or fans. Instead, it must pass investigations into incidents of racist abuse onto local prosecutors, who deal with them as legal cases.
But what caused this sudden flurry of activity after incident No. 10 when nine previous incidents of racist abuse seemingly were not enough to spark meaningful action?
The answer, according to one former marketing chief, is money and reputation.
Vinícius Jr. points to a fan in the stand who allegedly racially abused him during Real Madrid’s match at Valencia.Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
For the first time, Vinícius – one of the world’s most talented and recognizable players – insinuated that his future may not lie in the Iberian nation, while Spanish media was abuzz with suggestions that these incidents would hinder Spain’s joint 2030 World Cup bid – with Portugal, Morocco and Ukraine – an event that could be worth billions of dollars to the country.
Ricardo Fort, the former Head of Global Sponsorships at Visa and Coca-Cola, said brands that have sponsorship agreements with LaLiga may even start reconsidering these deals.
“The sponsors, if they are doing their job, have their PR teams monitoring how much they are involved in the conversation or how often their brands are being mentioned on social media and in the press,” Fort told CNN Sport.
“They probably have a statement ready to go if they feel they have to do it, but they are most likely holding that back to use only if it’s very, very necessary. All of them are trying to stay away from engaging the conversation, not to be associated with the problem.
“Behind the scenes, they are also calling the people they have to manage their relationships at LaLiga, to ask them to provide updates and to figure out what is their plan. Some of the CEOs may be questioning their marketing teams, whether or not this is something that is sustainable or if they should continue to be associated with LaLiga.”
‘Why are we associated with this?’
Fort likens the current situation in Spain with the fallout of the FIFA corruption scandal in 2015.
Swiss police at the time made several arrests during a raid of a hotel where FIFA executives were staying, with numerous high-ranking officials indicted on charges of money laundering, fraud and racketeering in arguably the biggest scandal to ever hit global soccer.
At the time, Fort was working for Visa – one of FIFA’s main sponsors – and says there is “a lot of pressure” from numerous parties on organizations like FIFA and LaLiga in crisis management situations like these.
Fort says CEOs called Sepp Blatter to ask him to step down as FIFA president.Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
“You have the press calling to ask for a statement, you have investor relations, so big holders of stocks of all these companies asking questions,” Fort says.
“You have board members that are calling the CEO to ask what the company is going to do, you have – depending on the case – employees saying: ‘Why are we associated with this?’”
At a meeting with its sponsors in Zurich, Fort says FIFA laid out its plan to form an independent ethics committee. However, when the CEOs of FIFA’s sponsors were not appeased by the plan, they phoned then president Sepp Blatter to demand changes in management.
“I know that the CEO of Coca-Cola at that time, Muhtar Kent, called Sepp Blatter and said: ‘Sepp, it’s time to leave,’” Fort recalls. “So this is the kind of thing that if the solution is not on the horizon, some CEOs may do this.
“There is a loss of confidence in the ability of LaLiga to manage the crisis and find solutions,” Fort adds. “Now, if I was a sponsor, I would demand changes in management and that starts with the president.”
Earlier this week, the head of the RFEF, Luis Rubiales, criticized LaLiga president Javier Tebas, who got involved in a back-and-forth with Vinícius on Twitter after Sunday’s match.
“Directors are not here to get involved in engagements on social media, we’re here to try and solve problems – and this footballer was attacked very seriously,” Rubiales said.
“I think Javier Tebas is not prepared, equipped or interested in solving the problem,” adds Fort.
Javier Tebas has been criticized for LaLiga’s handling of racist abuse.Isabel Infantes/Reuters
While removing the president from an organization is “not very effective in driving the solution” to the situation, Fort explains, it at least shows sponsors that the organization is “willing” to make big changes.
“That’s important,” he says.
LaLiga was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNN, but Tebas issued an apology on Wednesday, saying he “didn’t mean to attack Vinícius.”
“But if people in Brazil understood it that way I have to apologize,” he told ESPN Brasil. “That wasn’t my intention. I expressed myself badly, at a bad time … but I did not intend to attack Vinicius.”
A banner in the Santiago Bernabéu says “We’re all Vinícius, Enough is enough” ahead of Real Madrid’s match against Rayo Vallecano.Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images
The fallout from the incident at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium on Sunday even took a diplomatic turn when Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and other government officials became involved.
The Brazilian minister of racial equality, Anielle Franco, said on Monday that she had already called the Spanish Public Prosecutor’s Office and Spain’s deputy prime minister to investigate, while Brazil’s justice minister, Flávio Dino, tweeted about the possibility of “extraterritoriality” – applying Brazil’s laws in Spain – if Spanish authorities fail to protect Vinícius.
The incident even drew comments from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, who said the incident at the Mestalla Stadium “is a stark reminder of the prevalence of racism in sport.”
“I call on those who organize sporting events to have strategies in place to prevent and counter racism,” he added.
A spokesman for the US State Department also condemned the racists chants made against Vinícius, labeling them “horrific.”
Fort estimates that many of the sponsorship deals LaLiga has could run between $5 million and $10 million per season; a “sizable” amount, he says, but certainly not a “meaningful” financial impact given LaLiga’s revenues.
According to Reuters, LaLiga expects the total value of its business to increase from $26 billion to nearly $38 billion in seven to 10 years.
What can “really damage” LaLiga, however, is the continuing impact on its reputation, which would be made worse by sponsors canceling their deals with the league, according to Fort.
“If a recognized brand drops out because they don’t trust LaLiga’s commitment to combat racism, I think that’s going to have repercussions for them the next time they’re signing contracts for broadcasting or sponsors,” Fort says.
The Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro had its lights turned off to show solidarity with Vinícius.Carlos Fabal/AFP/Getty Images
It can also provide a boost to competitors, too, with other European leagues using LaLiga’s mess to their advantage.
On Tuesday, the CEO of Italy’s Serie A, Luigi De Siervo, said the league will will take a “zero tolerance” approach to racist fans, according to Reuters.
“If you are Serie A or Ligue 1 or the Bundesliga, you are going to talk about racism in every sale speech that you’re going to do in the next few years,” Fort says.
“You’re going to tell your prospects that, unlike other countries, you don’t have a problem of racism. I think this is going to hurt LaLiga commercially.
“We don’t know the extent, but I think it’s going to happen over time – and they may not lose money. They know that they may not have lower revenues, but they will grow slower than they could have grown otherwise.”