The midfielder’s post was intended to mark Three Kings Day, a Christian feast day in Spain, on the eve of which parades are held in towns across the country and the Nativity re-enacted. At least one of the royals arriving to visit the infant Jesus in the manger – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar - is commonly portrayed as black. The monarchs represent Europe, Arabia and Africa respectively.
Iniesta, one of the most admired players in the game’s history thanks to his exploits with Barcelona and the World Cup-winning Spanish national team, was hit with a deluge of angry responses on social media, with followers demanding he take down the image and many sharing memes expressing outrage and disbelief.
Others wondered how Iniesta could be so insensitive, having played with many black stars like Eric Abidal, Dani Alves and Samuel Eto’o over the course of his distinguished career.
Iniesta, nicknamed “El Caballero Palido” (“The Pale Knight”), is not the only footballer to become embroiled in blackface controversy online.
Dundee United defender Jamie Robson was the subject of an investigation last month after a picture of him blacked-up appeared online and, in December 2017, Atletico Madrid striker Antoine Griezmann was forced to delete a shot of himself dressed up as an NBA basketball star after a public backlash.
The France forward initially tried to downplay the post by expressing his admiration for the Harlem Globetrotters and telling his followers to “calm down” before subsequently bowing to pressure and conceding “it was wrong”.
Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy also caused outrage on Three Kings Day in 2013, when he took to the streets of Marbella dressed up as Balthazar.
While donning blackface to play an African or Middle Eastern character once went unquestioned by white audiences as a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment, it is now generally accepted as being out-and-out racist, a deeply offensive act to be avoided at all costs.
In the run-up to Christmas Italian fashion house Prada, forced to remove golliwog imagery from its New York shop window, and American journalist Megyn Kelly saw her NBC show cancelled last October after she defended blacking-up for Halloween as innocent fun.
Perhaps the controversy that has most in common with the Iniesta affair is that surrounding the Dutch Christmas character Zwart Piet (“Black Pete”), a mischievous assistant to Sinterklaas (“Father Christmas”) said to arrive by boat from Spain every December to bring presents.
Now an annual source of contention, Black Pete parades sparked angry scenes in Rotterdam, Eindhoven and Groningen in 2018 when an Amsterdam judge declined to ban the character from television.
As in the case of blacking-up for Three Kings processions, Black Pete brings modern values into conflict with long-standing custom.
While simply casting a black actor to play King Balthazar or Sinterklaas’s familiar seems like an obvious solution to allow tradition to be upheld without causing needless upset, opponents have pushed back against what they see as political correctness culture.
Rallies were held when the left-wing mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, attempted to modernise Three Kings celebrations in 2016 by employing a black Balthazar, leaving the debate at a frustrating impasse.
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