Every time the camera focused on Mouctar Diakhaby sitting in the stands, and Juan Cala still on the pitch, it felt worse. An opportunity lost, everything the wrong way round. On Sunday afternoon Valencia became the first top-level team in Spain to walk off the pitch in protest at alleged racist abuse suffered by their player, only to turn and come back on again.
Now the game, which no longer felt like a game, had started again – without the abused and with the alleged abuser. Diakhaby sat in silence, arms crossed, the mask over his face not really hiding anything. Below him, they played football and he didn’t.
How had it ended up like this? Valencia’s players had made a stand, an act of solidarity that might break through, but something or someone had brought them back. Something bigger than them and yet so much smaller. And so their statement, powerful and real, would be replaced by others more formal and far more empty. More self-serving, too.
Twenty-nine minutes had gone when a long, largely aimless ball was sent into the Cádiz area and out of play. As the teams headed back towards their positions, something was said – not yet seen by cameras or heard by microphones – and suddenly Diakhaby was gone. Something had snapped. Turning back, looking furious and hurt, he headed towards Cala. His teammate Kevin Gameiro grabbed him. Cádiz’s Fali did as well, arms around him, holding tightly and talking.
The referee, David Medié Jiménez, took out a yellow card. There was a look on Diakhaby’s face that is hard to describe: defeat, injustice, hurt. He turned away, turned back, turned away again, as if trying to believe this. He gestured, looked to the sky, pulled at his shirt, pointed at his chest, told the official what had triggered his reaction.
At that point, watching, you didn’t know what it was but you could imagine. Cameras caught might not be the right phrase here because it looked like Gabriel had turned to them deliberately, a public protest. But cameras caught Gabriel saying: “Negro de mierda no, eh.” In other words: there are things you can say, but not that. Not negro de mierda, which roughly translates as “shitty black”.
Afterwards the Valencia captain, José Luis Gayà, described it as “an ugly insult”, one he didn’t want to repeat, but said that Diakhaby had been abused. A statement from Valencia soon referred to racist abuse. The manager, Javi Gracia, called it “a serious insult”. The referee’s report later confirmed that Diakhaby told him he had been called “negro de mierda” and neither he nor his assistants had heard it personally.
Cala could be seen saying he hadn’t done anything and afterwards the Cádiz manager, Álvaro Cervera, said: “I have to believe my player and I do.” But there was no statement from him, no real firm defence of him either. Cádiz, a club with a left-wing identity and history of anti-racism initiatives, later put out a statement that was not exactly a fierce defence.
“Anyone guilty of such an offence, whether or not they belong to our team, must be punished,” Cádiz said. Although proof of what happened is not down to them, they noted, and presumption of innocence is preserved. Cala has remained silent so far: no public denial yet, no defence, nothing said. The club announced on Monday that Cala will speak at a press conference after training on Tuesday.
On the pitch, Cala withdrew to one side, looking like he was trying to keep out of the way. Occasionally, though, he shook his head. He spoke to the referee. After a short while, Gabriel said: “We’re going” and Valencia left the pitch. He and Gayà led them off, an arm on Diakhaby’s back.
For a while, Cádiz’s players stood on the pitch, conversations continuing by the tunnel. Eventually the referee told them to head to the dressing room, too. Diakhaby was “sunk”, Gayà said. They’d gone. They’d done it. They had made a stand. And then, it was unmade.
A little while later – between the game stopping and restarting, 24 minutes passed in total – Valencia’s Hugo Guillamón came out and started warming up. Guillamón is a centre-back, Diakhaby’s position. Wait, what? They were going to play without Diakhaby. Soon the rest of the players came to join him; the rest of the players except Diakhaby. Except Cala too, for the moment. In the tunnel before they came back up, you could see Thierry Correia upset, Gonçalo Guedes consoling him.
Valencia released a statement opposing racism and saying Diakhaby, who Gracia later said was “affected” and “not [in a condition] to play” – had told them to carry on without him to “fight for the badge”. A tweet read: “We offer our complete backing to Diakhaby. The player, who had received a racial insult, requested that his teammates return to the pitch. WE SUPPORT YOU MOUCTAR.”
Coming back out again seemed a strange way to do so, but a five-minute warmup began. A couple of minutes later, the last man out appeared: Cala headed on to the pitch on his own. He had, it seemed, been kept apart from the rest.
The game began again. Nothing much happened before half-time, the focus now on two men: one who was no longer in the game and another who was but might as well not have been. At half-time, Cala was taken off. “I had thought about changing him but he asked to continue until half-time,” Cervera said.
Marca’s front page on Monday said: “You’re not alone,” with a picture of Diakhaby sitting alone. With neither player on the pitch, and with the TV cameras turning the other way, the game went on. The question was why.
“Diakhaby told us he was insulted, a racist insult,” Gayà said immediately afterwards. “We condemn that so we went off. We went in support of our teammate. They told us we had to go back out or lose three points, or more. [Diakhaby] gave us his authorisation, that’s why we went back out.”
Gracia said: “In the dressing room they notified us that if we didn’t go back out we would get punished. At that moment we asked Diakha how he was. He told us that he wasn’t in a fit shape to play but that he understood perfectly that we should continue playing, given the possible punishment.”
That is not the same as saying he had asked them to go and play. Neither Gracia nor Gayà said who “they” were. Gracia in fact evaded that question a couple of times, although he did mention that the referee had not heard the abuse. The referee’s report referred to the two clubs’ delegates coming in and telling him they would go back out and play, and so they did.
Protocols allow for a referee to abandon the game if racist abuse is heard. In the event of an accusation of racist abuse that the officials do not hear, the onus is on the team(s) to refuse to play. In that situation, a referee cannot and will not force them to play, but must also inform them of the protocol and the possible consequences. A team that refuses to play a game for any reason can have the game registered as a 6-0 defeat and also be docked an additional three points.
After the game, Valencia released another statement. This time they said they had been “forced to play under the threat of punishment”. The statement added that the club had not forced their players to continue playing. Suggesting they had been forced because of the threat of punishment is different to being informed of the possible consequences of taking a stand. It is also different to saying they played because Diakhaby told them to do so.
Making a stand means accepting the consequences, declaring this to be bigger, worth paying for if needs be. More than three points, or six. Or a hundred of them. A stand means challenging the football authorities: ban us then. Daring them to do it. To put it another way, offering them the opportunity to step forward, to act. To make good on those promises.
A statement was made yesterday, but then it shifted. It was turned on its head. Not worthless as the image is there now, still powerful, still strong, the essential truth at the heart of it all revealed and rejected. But backwards: the players who had made a stand, defended their teammate, supported him and walked off ended up in a position where they unhappily walked back on again.
This was bigger than football but the football went on, Valencia eventually losing 2-1, the alleged victim watching the alleged perpetrator play. There have been suggestions that Valencia had Diakhaby’s shirt by the bench, ready to dedicate him the victory, but they didn’t win.