Posted on December 7, 2022

Black and Spanish: A National Team Starts to Reflect All of Its Nation

Rory Smith, New York Times, December 6, 2022

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.


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.


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 Balde and the forwards Ansu Fati and Nico Williams.


They have appeared only occasionally during the tournament so far — a couple of substitute appearances and one start each for Balde 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.

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.

{snip} 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. {snip}


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.


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, Balde, 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.”