'Monkey chants' force clampdown on Spain's racist football fans

European football's ruling body, Uefa, is to launch a crackdown on racism in Spanish stadiums, with black players from Arsenal and Chelsea facing potential hostility in matches against Spanish clubs next month.

An anti-racism conference in Barcelona this week will address the problem before the British clubs face Real Madrid and Barcelona in high-profile Champions League matches. It comes 15 months after England's black players, including Shaun Wright-Phillips, now with Chelsea, and Arsenal's Ashley Cole were subjected to a torrent of racial abuse during a "friendly" match against Spain in Madrid.

Despite official embarrassment, the controversy appeared to trigger a fashion for racist abuse in Spain. So-called "monkey chants" and other jibes are commonplace in La Liga. But they are punished only by small fines, and there is still little high-profile condemnation of the problem. Such incidents often go unreported in the Spanish media.

"Although we are, together with the fans, players and clubs, trying to eradicate this kind of behaviour, I still find it deeply hurtful and troubling," said Angel María Villar, president of the Spanish Football Federation. But Juan Castro, a journalist on the sports daily Marca, believed monkey chanting "does not have a racist cause. It is a way of insulting the enemy team. It has a football cause, not a racial motivation. The England game was a cultural thing. It was a joke. It wasn't racist."

Santiago Seguroila, sports editor of El Pais, Spain's leading newspaper, sees the "fashion" as a reaction to a sharp rise in immigration to Spain over the past 15 years.

"There are tensions in society," he said. "It is dangerous, because the ultra-right movements are trying to use it. As yet it is not an acute problem, but it could grow into one."

Hardcore fans of Real Madrid, called the Ultra Surs, are sure to subject Arsenal players to catcalls when the two clubs meet in Madrid in February. The Arsenal striker, Thierry Henry, was called a "black shit" by the Spanish national coach, Luis Aragonés, in an overheard conversation with another of the club's players, José Antonio Reyes, during training. But Aragonés kept his job, and will lead Spain into the World Cup this summer.

Barcelona's hooligan element, the Boix Nois, which is Catalan for "mad boys", also have a reputation for racist chanting, even though the club's star player, Ronaldinho, is black.

Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o, from Cameroon, is one of the few top players to have spoken out publicly against racism. "I thought the racist chanting was just a fad," he said, "but it seems to be becoming more widespread and more vitriolic."

Marcelino Bondjale, of the Coalición contra Racismo (Coalition against Racism) said: "Racism against blacks is worse than 20 years ago. Football is an expression of this. The danger is that the situation in football could worsen the situation in society."

This week's conference, called "Unite Against Racism", will gather some 200 delegates, including players, football personalities and politicians from countries across Europe at Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium.

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