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Colour barrier finally broken at Athletic Bilbao

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Phil Minshull | 06:30 UK time, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The name Jonas Ramalho probably doesn't mean very much to most football fans, even Spanish ones, but on Wednesday night the Athletic Bilbao defender is expected to make history on several counts.

He's in the Basque team's squad to face Werder Bremen in the Europa League and set to make his European debut filing in for the injured and flu-ridden Spanish international right-back Andoni Iraola.

Each season about 100 players start their first-team careers with Spanish top-flight clubs but what has brought the spotlight specifically on Ramalho is not only that he will be the youngest player to appear for Athletic Bilbao in an official match but that he's black.

Ramalho (not pictured) is hoping to establish himself in Athletic's first teamRamalho (not pictured) is hoping to establish himself in Athletic's first team

The son of an Angolan father and a Basque mother, when Ramalho runs on to the field to face the Germans it will be a genuinely iconic moment.

Some commentators will argue that I should be concentrating on Ramalho's prodigious talent rather than his skin colour, after all he's a Spanish Under-17 international and played for Athletic in a friendly when he was just 14.

However, for many other people, including myself, Ramalho's debut - and if it is not against Werder Bremen then it will be sometime very soon - is a watershed moment as Athletic are the last remaining team in the current Spanish first division to incorporate a black player into their team.

His appearance might have barely merited a mention if he had appeared for many other clubs but Athletic are one of the historic giants of La Liga, one of only three teams to be ever-present in the Spanish first division - along with Barcelona and Real Madrid - since the league's formation in 1928.

They have won the league title eight times and are the fourth-most successful club in La Liga history, even if their last triumph was back in 1984.

After several years when it looked as though they might finally be relegated, they are arguably having their best season in more than a decade - having been runners up in 1998 - and are currently seventh.

However, the club's unique philosophy of only incorporating players native to the Basque region - that's born in or with Basque parents - has effectively meant that it has been an all-white bastion until now, despite the huge numbers of immigrants of all corners of the world that have arrived in Spain during the last 15 years.

Athletic coach Joaquin Caparros has rightly done his best to keep the youngster out of the glare of the media in recent weeks, after it became obvious that a first team appearance was imminent.

He was even only prepared to confirm that he was in their 18-man squad at the obligatory pre-match press conference on Tuesday. "We'll have to decide whether it's the right moment for him to make his debut or whether he plays from the start or not," he said.

Regardless of his footballing talent, Ramalho has brought the whole issue of racism in Spanish football once again back into focus.

What sort of reception he will get when he plays away from home, or even from some his club's own fans who have been guilty of racially abusing black players in the past, is a burning issue.

Black players have been playing in La Liga since the 1950s. Most originally came from South America but more recently there have been increasing numbers from African nations or elsewhere in Europe but, unlike most other western European countries, black Spanish players are still few and far between even within the 'cantera' (youth teams) of the top clubs.

There have only been four black Spanish internationals and three of those, including Villarreal's Marcos Senna, have been naturalised Brazilians.

Only this weekend there was again a brutal reminder that Spanish football is still far, far behind many other leagues in western Europe in terms of its attitude towards racial abuse.Samuel Eto'o
Samuel Eto'o of Barcelona had to be persuaded not to leave the pitch following his treatment from fans at Real Zaragoza

Barcelona fans were shown on national television repeatedly abusing Espanyol's Cameroon international goalkeeper Carlos Kameni but the club's own stewards did nothing to deal with the situation.

Many black players, notably former Real Madrid defender Roberto Carlos and former Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o, have commented that they face almost weekly abuse whenever they are playing away from home.

Eto'o threatened to walk off the pitch after suffering continual racist abuse at Zaragoza in 2006, incidents which prompted the Spanish football authorities to fine the home side paltry €9,000 despite evidence that the club had continually allowed such behaviour from its so-called fans.

This incident followed in the wake of the well-documented attacks on England's black players at Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium, the venue for this season's Uefa Champions League final, when they played Spain in November 2004.

At least, attitudes towards black players appear to have improved within Spanish clubs themselves compared a decade ago.

Ivory Coast winger Felix Ettien, along with his fellow Ivory Coast junior international Idrissa Keita), joined Levante after appearing at the 1997 Fifa Under-20 World Cup.
"The then Levante coach thought we were a disaster. Because we didn't speak Spanish, everybody ignored us. Whenever I fell ill, people said it was AIDS or malaria or some other serious disease and nobody would come near us," revealed Ettien in a 2004 interview.

"We were obliged to use the same plates and cutlery in the club cafeteria, and use the same shirts, socks, shorts and towels in the dressing room," he added grimly.

Hopefully, Ramalho will soon attest to the fact that he didn't suffer that sort of fate growing up in the Athletic youth system.

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