i amAt the start of Barcelona’s Europa League meeting with Napoli in February, there was some team talk, this time not just about tactics. They informed their opponents for a start, and it was bigger, the players were discussing it in the dressing room and agreed that they would try something new: they would take a knee. Six years since Colin Kaepernick first did it, two after Premier League clubs followed suit, it was the first time a top-flight Spanish club had knelt. It was also the last, at least in the men’s game.
The idea came from a Barcelona player born right next to Camp Nou who had spent the previous six years in England. Then on loan at Barcelona, Adama Traoré has just finished training at Wolves as he sits in front of the screen. This is the evening before the Premier League captains announced that they will now only kneel in special matches, which does not mean walking. Here or there. “Kneeling is important and it was good that a Spanish team did it,” says Traoré. “It’s a way of explaining the need for war.”
Narrative is a word that Traoré returns to often. Education too. At its heart, he says, it’s about empathy. It is also about understanding and his experience is instructive, that night at Camp Nou and for the anti-racist project Common Goal now. Common Goal celebrates its fifth anniversary on Thursday and Traoré joins its anti-discrimination initiatives that include training for club managers, fan activities and local community projects for integration. “For me, it’s about explaining the opportunity, so I can see why people think that way. And act from there.”
The Camp Nou was applauded that night but the gesture was not repeated in Spain except for a few players on European nights. Some of the Spanish teams in Europe are caught off guard at the start, not expecting opponents to bow down. Some Atlético Madrid fans booed Liverpool for taking a knee. Suggestions that the national team bow out at Euro 2020 have drawn opposition. They never did, something the far-right, anti-immigration party Vox celebrated with a tweet: “When some kneel, a patriot stands.”
On the rise of the populist right, not only in Spain, Traoré responds: “It’s a fact. There is racism. There are racist people who still promote the idea that the fact that your skin color is different makes you inferior.” Yet he does not see such a deliberate rejection of anti-racist measures, at least not on the football field. Nor is it about a single country, although he says the level of caution and sensitivity is higher in England. After all, these processes are generations. At the same time in England it was revealed that the fans are taking a knee by whistling the players.
“I don’t think it’s resistance,” says the 26-year-old Traoré. “I think it’s a lack of understanding, explanation, culture, empathy. Maybe they don’t rejection full knee closing; maybe they don’t know, don’t understand or think there’s nothing wrong with them. Kneeling started here; it may eventually reach Spain. The answer may not be the same [everywhere] but it is important because the action brings explanation: education is important, especially for children. It is difficult for people who have not experienced racism to have empathy. So you explain, tell stories, what you have seen and heard, suffered.
“It was a conversation with Rio Ferdinand and I remember I told him about a physical son. He’s a kid, he doesn’t know, but you see people you admire, so you ask: ‘Why my favorite player? is he kneeling?’ So the father explains: the kids in your school from other ethnic groups or different skin colors are just like you; they are not inferior. But racism is a reality, so, kneel down from this and that. This is what is needed.”
Traoré’s parents came to Barcelona from Mali in 1980, his father worked in the Nissan factory. They lived in Hospitalet, one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Europe and one of the few places with a significant immigrant community at that point.
“When I was young, you’d go to discos in Barcelona and you’d see that black people couldn’t get in. At school there were people who would be like, ‘Black, no.’ You were separated, outside. “Comments like ‘black people don’t smell good’, all kinds of things, prejudice,” he says.
“I am Spanish, I feel Spanish and I have Spanish culture, but I also have the culture of my African heritage through my parents. It’s easier for me to understand these two, but people don’t have that. People are carried away by what they are told, or by television. If you actually go to, say, Africa, you see something different from the way it is “advertised”, [with] images of poverty and problems.
“You are a child, you don’t understand. Why? Why treat me like this? Why do I have to hear ‘monkey’, ‘niger’, ‘black…’? It’s a reality you live with. The first time it happens, you can’t believe it. It’s surreal, you know? You grow up, you live with it: some fight, some let go. My parents always said: ‘You have to be strong, this is our life today, but it will change. You can never feel inferior.’ They told me who I am, that I am beautiful. But there are children for whom it is a trauma, which can be described, who feel ugly, are rejected, because they do not feel accepted they try to change their skin or features. It is important: for people to see that the action exists, of course, but also to see the consequences, the damage it does. And to educate those children who also experience racism, help them understand.
“I experienced it in football,” he continues. “The monkey sings. My brother too: they called him all sorts of things. But the man was punished – and that’s important. Gradually more drastic measures are taken and it improves over time. But we still have to fight.”
What is the best response to abuse on the field? Where to go? “In England they do something important: identify and see the special person. The sidekicks are not responsible and should not be. But there is a time when the captains can intervene, when they are not just one but many: go to the dressing room or report it to the FA. Then if the clubs are fined, they will take action, be careful who gets involved. The best punishment for me, other than a ban etc., would be a lesson. Understand, educate. Why did you do that? ?I am not in favor of hate meeting.
“There are people who think ‘it’s not about me’ but it’s everyone: what you do affects others. Some people who suffer racism think: I’m going to protest now, because it’s not going anywhere It doesn’t reach. I’ve seen many people like that, people who don’t tell him anymore.”
The decision to take a knee only before certain games was driven by concerns that it could lose its effectiveness as a move, becoming routine. “There are people who don’t like it, or are not interested. Others will do it, up to a point. Others think it’s a fad and as long as it is, it’s fine. Some go along with it because everyone else is, even if they think differently,” he says.
“Some think it’s ‘political’ and don’t want to look beyond that. It’s such a broad movement that all kinds of things can be included but it doesn’t make sense to use that to hide what it really is. The message: it’s something to take with you. Some say: ‘Don’t you think the knee is getting too long?’
And what do you say? “I say: I get it. You haven’t lived it, you haven’t suffered it on a daily basis. Some people don’t know what racism really is. But if people ask, you can explain it. Racism is still a living problem, it’s a fact. You have to let’s take a knee, speak up, educate those who don’t see and those who are suffering. And there’s one thing that really matters: what can you do? What can you do yourself to make the world a better place? This is where change begins. “