The case of Santi Mina: Guilty of sexual assault yet still playing football

Editor’s note: This article contains graphic references to sexual assault

“RC Celta and Al Shabab today closed an agreement for the loan of striker Santi Mina to the Saudi side, which he will join immediately,” said a statement released by La Liga team Celta Vigo on Wednesday. “The player will play until June 30 in the Saudi Arabian First Division.”

The short statement left out one very serious piece of information.

Last May, Mina, 26, was found guilty of sexual assault by a Spanish court and sentenced to four years in prison.

Nevertheless, he has been allowed to continue his career while an appeal is being heard, and in recent weeks has been working each day with his Celta team-mates at the Galician club’s A Madroa training ground.

This may be startling to some observers, and would not be possible in jurisdictions where players charged with such serious crimes are immediately suspended completely by their clubs.

However, it is in line with how almost everyone in Spanish football has reacted since Mina was accused of a serious sexual assault and spent a night in jail in the southern city of Almeria in June 2017, when he was a Valencia player.

During the five years since, Mina has played almost 200 times for Valencia and Celta in La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League and the Europa League. He has been paid more than €7million (£5.9m, $7m) while his employers, Celta, have argued that under Spanish law they could not take action against him until the entire legal process is over, whether they wished to or not.

So, although Mina was officially charged with an offence in December 2019, a few months after he rejoined Celta after four seasons with Valencia, he continued to feature regularly for his hometown team.

Even this past spring, after Mina had appeared in court during a five-day trial, at which very graphic evidence of a sexual assault and its consequence was heard in court and widely reported, Celta continued to allow him to represent the club.

When he was found guilty in early May, Mina was provisionally suspended from first-team activities, but Celta’s primary objective appears to many to have remained to protect the club’s interests rather than think about the wider consequences of their actions for the club’s image and Spanish football in general.

“The focus has been on protecting the club from any damage,” believes Celta season-ticket holder Sabela Correa. “They took a long time to say anything, to criticise what had happened. He was still playing after the trial,” she tells The Athletic. The club has never really made a strong statement about the matter, I don’t believe Celta have handled it well at all.”

Celta’s fans have a history of social protest, in line with Vigo’s self-image as more socially progressive than its more conservative north-western neighbours A Coruna and Santiago.

This spirit fed loud protests in February 2013, when former Atletico Madrid and Valencia forward Salva Ballesta was lined up as the club’s new assistant coach. Supporters’ clubs quickly mobilised against Ballesta, whose strident Spanish nationalist and conservative political views were well known. Celta club president Carlos Mourino quickly decided to hire a different coach.

There were no such protests in July 2019, when Mina rejoined Celta from Valencia. Most fans were well aware he had spent a night in jail in Almeria the previous summer after being accused of a sexual assault. The details of the incident were widely reported and it was known that the case remained open.

But unlike with Ballesta, no opposition was organised to Mina’s return. Around 2,500 supporters showed up for his presentation back at Celta’s Balaidos Stadium. They proudly billed it as part of a “homecoming” campaign which also saw their former youth-teamers Denis Suarez and Rafinha return to the club, using the social media hashtags #SantiVolveaCasa (Santi’s Coming Home) and #IstoVaiDeCorazon (This is from the heart).

“When Celta signed Santi Mina, having already been accused, nobody said practically anything,” says Jessica Fernandez, of feminist group Plataforma Feminista Galega. “Just some feminist groups and some groups of female Celta fans, but very, very little.”

Mina’s father, also called Santi Mina, had played for Celta in the early 1980s. Vigo-born Santi junior was already well known as he progressed through the club’s youth system, making his senior debut aged 17 in February 2013, and soon becoming the youngest goalscorer in the club’s La Liga history.

Now represented by Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes, Mina’s reputation grew after he scored four goals in one La Liga game against Rayo Vallecano in April 2015. The following summer, Valencia triggered his €10million release clause, much to the disappointment of many Celta fans.

In his first three years at Mestalla, Mina never established himself as a regular starter. Valencia kept picking him even after they knew he had been accused of sexual assault in the 2017-18 pre-season, and in 2018-19, he started over 30 games and helped them win the Copa del Rey. Although an unused sub in the final, he got a tattoo of the trophy on his leg, with the phrase: “Everything happens for a reason”.

That summer, Celta moved to bring him back to Balaidos, in a swap move involving Uruguayan Maxi Gomez, which valued Mina at €15million.

There were some in Vigo who wanted to draw attention to the situation. Rebeca Martinez, of feminist group Feminismo Unitario de Vigo, says she spoke with some Celta fans groups about bringing banners to the stadium, but few wanted to raise their voices against the club.

“Most fans who I know were very hurt, but they did not dare to point a finger at the club, or those in charge,” Martinez says. “We all, men and women, have a responsibility to set our red lines, but that did not happen in this case.”

Santi Mina playing for Valencia against Manchester United in the Champions League in 2018 (Photo: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Most Celta fans just saw him as another squad member, as did all his coaches. He quickly won a starting spot under coach Fran Escriba, finding the net for the first time with a 95th-minute equaliser against Espanyol at Balaidos.

“I have to say that I did become more distant from the team, although I remained a Celta fan,” Correa says. “Most people just said they would wait until the trial was over. I didn’t like that, I would not have signed him, but I kept supporting the team, I still do. When they announced his name in the stadium, I did not applaud. But I remained a socia (club member).”

In November 2019, it was announced the Almeria public prosecutor planned to take the case to court. The following month, Mina was present at Juzgado de Instruccion numero 1 court in Vera, Almeria, where a judge agreed there was sufficient evidence to go to trial.

For Celta, there was still insufficient grounds for them to change their stance.

“The club has zero tolerance, but we have to give him the presumption of innocence,” club president Mourino said at the club’s AGM that month. “(Mina) says he is relaxed, that this will not have any consequences for him. We have to believe him until the judge gives a verdict.”

To Fernandez, this presumption of innocence may work for most offences, but she feels cases of sexual violence should be treated differently. “You have to deal with these cases more sensitively, you have to believe the victim,” Fernandez says. “You cannot say the accused is guilty, but you can take some precautionary, preventative measures. If a judge says there is sufficient evidence to go to trial, for us, that is enough to take a player out of the team, so as not to damage the image of the club. Because harming a woman is different than a traffic offence.”

However, Mina stayed in the Celta team. That 2019-20 season saw him feature in 34 of the 38 La Liga games, scoring six goals, including a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Real Madrid at Balaidos in the February. Most supporters in the stadium cheered that goal, but not all. 

“Statistically, many female Celta fans has suffered some type of violence against women or sexual violence,” Fernandez says. “So, obviously, it is very upsetting to celebrate a goal scored by a player who you believe has committed a crime like this, or to applaud a pass he makes, or support him.”

The 2020-21 season was the best of Mina’s career. He scored 12 La Liga goals in 32 games and was a key player for coach Eduardo Coudet as the team finished a creditable eighth. Nobody elsewhere in Spanish football raised any problems about his continued involvement and there were no protests from supporters when Celta visited other stadiums either. 

Celta protected Mina by making him available for only carefully controlled media interviews and not putting him forward for routine press conferences. He did some club media work, including answering questions from fans on the club’s website. Last December, he was chosen to represent the club on a visit to a children’s ward at Vigo’s Hospital Alvaro Cunqueiro, to which local media photographers were invited.

“For us that was wrong and almost like they were helping him to clean his image,” Fernandez says. “It was completely inappropriate. No hospitalised child wants to get a gift from a player who was accused of such an ugly crime.”

That hospital visit came as Mina featured in all but one of Celta’s games through the first half of last season. Even as the trial approached and his form dipped, Coudet kept picking him.

Although going through a run of no goals in seven games, he started away at Real Betis on March 20 — Celta’s last game before he was due in court in Almeria eight days later.

The case took place over five days from Monday March 28 to Friday April 1 at the Audiencia Provincial de Almeria.

The court heard that the victim and her friends had met Santi Mina and his former Celta youth team-mate David Goldar at the Mandala Beach nightclub, in the resort of Mojacar, near Almeria. Goldar and the victim went together to a caravan where the footballer was staying and had sex.

Mina then entered the caravan almost naked. From there, the evidence of the three people involved differs completely. The victim said she was seriously assaulted by Mina and that Goldar was a “necessary accessory”. The players protested that they felt they had not done anything wrong.

Mina did admit to having apologised in the caravan before the victim fled. His lawyer Fatima Rodriguez explained this as a “gesture of empathy” with someone who felt “overwhelmed”, not a recognition he had erred in any way.

Over the five days, the defence repeatedly questioned the reliability and plausibility of the victim. It emerged that they had hired two private detectives to follow her to look for evidence to throw doubts on her version of events of the night and how it had affected her life afterwards.

Rodriguez asked one detective if the victim had “worn skirts and tight clothing” while he followed her. In court, Rodriguez also said of the victim: “She could remember the type of rum they were drinking, but forgot about half the rape until later she said that Santiago Mina put three fingers in her vagina.”

The victim told the court the players had offered her €400,000 to change her story and not implicate them. Goldar’s lawyer Manuel Olle replied that: “It was she who approached them and put some more zeros.” Mina’s counsel Rodriguez also said that “the final objective of all this is to ask for money, there’s no other explanation”.

This was despite medics detailing injuries suffered by the victim on the night and psychologists describing ongoing effects she continues to suffer. The court heard that when the victim’s body was examined on the night of the incident, DNA of both Mina and Goldar was found. Forensics confirmed an injury to her genital area caused by a fingernail. She also had injuries on her wrist and ankle compatible with being held down. Tests showed that the relations with Goldar had been consensual and he was subsequently found not guilty.

The court also heard from three psychologists that the victim had suffered post-traumatic stress. Medics and psychologists who attended to the victim, as well as Guardia Civil officers, all backed up her story.

Celta Vigo coach Coudet continued to pick Mina after the guilty verdict (Photo: Ion Alcoba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Many back in Vigo were following the events closely, but it made no difference to Mina’s position at Celta. He was named in the Celta squad for that weekend’s home game against Real Madrid despite having spent most of the week attending court in Almeria over 1,000km (700 miles) away.

“We’re all innocent until the courts say otherwise,” Celta coach Coudet said at a press conference. “He is an important player, so he’s in the squad.”

When Mina was introduced as a sub late on with Madrid 2-1 up, Correa says that some female fans whistled. But generally, the stadium was focused on the football as Celta unsuccessfully tried to get a late equaliser.

While the judges were weighing the evidence in the case before coming to their verdict, Coudet picked Mina in the XI for Celta’s next four games.

By now, everyone in Spanish football was well aware of the situation.

The case was widely reported in the Spanish press and linked to previous high-profile sexual assault cases, including that involving movie stars Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Some commentators claimed that Mina had been unfairly treated and that the judges had been put under pressure to find him guilty. “The night that ruined Santi Mina’s career,” said the headline of one report in conservative paper ABC.

“Come on, is it not the night that Santi Mina ruined the life of a woman who has been suffering ever since?” Martinez says. “But they have to put the focus on the victim, make a story out of it. It was terrible how they revictimised the woman, pointed fingers at her again and put the focus on her all the time. The basic point is that you have to respect the wishes of the other person. It is a bit absurd to even have this conversation, but we need to keep saying it.”

That verdict came on May 4, signed by judges Tarsila Martinez, Ignacio Angulo and Soledad Balaguer. Goldar was exonerated, but Mina found guilty. The verdict agreed with the version of events as told by the victim about Mina and backed up by the experts. The 46-page document detailed very explicitly what happened in the caravan near the beach on the night of June 16, 2017.

“Surprisingly, taking advantage of the superiority provided by the narrow and strange space for Ms N (the victim), that he covered the only exit and she was in a state of shock, he directly introduced his naked and erect penis into her mouth without asking.

“Ms N pushed him, getting his penis out of her mouth. Next, the defendant, Santiago ML (Mina), despite the victim’s lack of consent, pushed her backwards on her bed, inserting the fingers of his right hand into her vagina. After that, when observing the defendant, Santagio ML, who had to resort to force to continue with the sexual relationship, despite this clearly being his objective, he stopped acting, apologised and Ms N left the place in a state of great anxiety.”

The verdict found that the victim had marks on her skin, on her arm and the top of her leg, which were consistent with how she described what had happened. The judges also found that the victim showed symptoms of anxiety and depression related to what had occurred, including “chronic post-traumatic stress disorder”.

The verdict said Goldar, now at Spanish second division side Ibiza, had not participated in the assault in any way.

The judges made clear that “there was an absence of consent by the victim” in her encounter with Mina, although their view of events was different from the prosecution in one important way. The prosecutors had called for Mina to get eight years in prison for the offence of sexual aggression, but the court found him guilty of sexual assault, which carries a four-year sentence.

The judgement also included five years of supervised freedom and a prohibition against coming close to or communicating with the victim for 12 years. He also had to pay her €50,000 for damages caused.

Mina’s legal team disagreed fundamentally with the judges’ decision and said they intended to appeal to the Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Andalucia (TSJA) and Spain’s Supreme Court in Madrid if necessary. The victim’s lawyer disagreed with the decision not to find Mina guilty of the more serious offence with the eight-year penalty and also appealed.

Under Spanish law, Mina would not enter into custody until this entire appeals process was completed.

A few hours after the verdict was made public, Celta released a club statement saying they had opened their own disciplinary case against Mina, who had been “removed” from first-team training.

The statement also repeated on various occasions that the measures were “provisional”. They said they still respected the player’s right to defence but said they had to protect the image of the club.

So the profile and image of their No 22 was removed from the club’s website and all their retail outlets. Celta’s official account unfollowed Mina on Instagram.

However, he remained a club employee and it was clear no decisive action was being taken until the appeal was held.

Neither club president Mourino nor first-team coach Coudet were quoted in the statement and neither made any public comments. It was left to Celta’s captain Iago Aspas to act as a spokesperson for the club.

“I subscribe to the club’s position and understand the fans,” Aspas said on El Larguero radio show that night. “The club cannot just sack Mina like that, you have to see the rights on each side. We want to focus on the sporting side. Whatever side you take, it doesn’t matter, it will not go well. In these moments, there are lots of lawyers and judges in the press room and on social networks.”

Even after their player had been found guilty of a sexual offence in court and the graphic detail of the offence was made public, nobody at Celta made any strong statement on the issue of sexual violence against women.

“That never happened, never,” Martinez says. “Even Celta’s statement when he was found guilty, they never in any moment took into account the victim or apologised to her. There was a total lack of empathy. There needed to be absolute clarity, and not just with words, but with acts. That is what is needed, to make an example.”

Three days after the verdict, Celta entertained Alaves. Mina was watching from home as Coudet’s team won 4-0 to mathematically secure safety from relegation. But for many fans, the most important events at the stadium were taking place off the pitch.

During the game, some in the club’s Siareiros “animation section”, where younger, noisier fans congregate to provide much of the stadium’s atmosphere, began to chant “Santi Mina, rapist”. Supporters in other areas of the stadium whistled to drown the chant out.

“It was a strange moment in the stadium,” says Correa, who was present. “I am not in that stand, it took me a while to make out they were chanting ‘Santi Mina, rapist’. And I joined in. Some girls in front of me joined in, too. But other fans whistled as they said you should not mix things. But the sentence has been handed down.

“I believe in life you have to take a position — some things are right and some things are wrong. Nobody likes to hear those words, but I thought, at last somebody is taking a position on this. And it did not seem bad to me. So I joined in.”

Mina’s name was not mentioned at the post-game news conference and Coudet did not bring him up either.

“We played a very good game, we won and our fans enjoyed themselves with the team,” the Argentinian said. “I can ask for little more.”

Celta got on with finishing the season, with Mina not allowed to visit the club’s facilities, but still being paid his full wages. He was asked to stay away again during pre-season, but the player’s camp sent a Burofax, a method of business communication, popular in Spain, stating that he was still legally entitled to come to work until his case was fully settled.

So while the squad were on a pre-season tour of the United States, Mina was back at the training ground along with other players who had stayed behind. When Coudet and the rest of the team returned to Galicia, Mina took part in the physical preparation parts of sessions, but not the tactical work preparing for games.

On July 28, president Mourino called a press conference at the stadium. Most of the half-hour event focused on a long-running dispute with midfielder Denis Suarez, but Mina’s situation was also addressed during opening remarks and in responses to two questions from reporters.

“Santi Mina is a kid who has been found guilty, but it is not a confirmed sentence,” Mourino said. “He has the right to train, to be here, the same as everyone else. He trains, eats with the players, is part of the squad.”

Mourino, 79, did admit to one mistake in dealing with Mina’s case, which was not inserting a clause in his contract when the player returned from Valencia which would allow the club to fire him if he was found guilty. Such a clause would have been possible under Spanish law and they are often used to protect clubs in less serious cases, but Celta did not think it necessary in this case.

“(Mina) and his lawyers convinced us there was nothing to the case,” Mourino said. “They talked about a kind of extortion and, with my excitement about this ‘operation returns’, I made a mistake, did not take any precautions. This was a mistake as it was my duty to take these precautions. I apologise to Celta’s fans for that, as I’m the one who messed up there.”

Mourino said Celta’s way of resolving the situation had been to find clubs — one was Greek side Aris Salonika, another was in the United Arab Emirates — who would take him on loan for this season. But Mina and his camp would not accept this as they wanted him released from the final two years of his contract so he could sign permanently for a new club.

“We found him two teams to play outside Spain and he did not accept it because he wants to leave for free,” Mourino said. “Which would be making a gift to someone who has done wrong. If he made a mistake, Celta should not have to pay for it. I’m not going to free Santi tomorrow from the (three) years on his contract so that tomorrow he signs for the club we found for him.”

Mourino said that if Celta rescinded his contract unilaterally, they would have to pay him the next three seasons’ salary in full. Mina’s substantial wages were a big problem for the club as they looked to build a squad inside La Liga’s salary limit for 2022-23. He did suggest that, should Mina’s appeal fail, Celta would take legal action against the player.

Mina has joined a club in Saudi Arabia on loan for the rest of this season with the legal case potentially rolling on well into next year (Photo: Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

“We consider that he has done us great damage,” Mourino said. “We will make the appropriate claims on Santi when the sentence is confirmed.”

Listening to this was Plataforma Feminista Galega’s Fernandez, who did not buy the arguments.

“Celta should end all ties with him,” Fernandez says. “Justice in Spain is very slow, so you cannot wait. He has already been found guilty. Even if it costs them money, Celta should end his contract, just out of empathy with other women, to show they support the feminist cause and leave clear that, as they have said, they have zero tolerance for violence against women. The majority of female fans, and also some men, believe that Celta have acted very badly with this. You see again that the president is a man, the directors are almost all men, and there is a sexist and patriarchal system behind all the arguments they make.”

Such a decision would have been a big change of policy for Celta. Since Mina rejoined the club three years ago, their fans had been put in an impossible position. A person accused of such a serious crime, with a court having accepted there was credible evidence of wrongdoing, was promoted as a high-profile representative of their club and their city.

“Mourino has admitted it was a mistake to sign him, to not put a clause in his contract,” says season-ticket holder Correa. “But I would have liked a strong declaration as an institution because a football club is not a normal business, it is the public image of a city, of a sector of society. Celta are behind in this, generally, they don’t have a women’s team. In general, more is needed.”

A solution emerged on August 7, when Al Shabab came to Balaidos for the XXVI Memorial Quinocho pre-season exhibition game. That was an opportunity for Celta’s executives and Mina’s camp to speak with the Saudi club, who were immediately interested in the opportunity to add him to a squad which already includes former La Liga midfielders Ever Banega, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Alfred N’Diaye.

It took a fortnight for all the details to be agreed. Mina travelled to Riyadh on Tuesday, completed a medical, and the season-long loan deal was confirmed the following day. It is believed Celta have received a €2.5million loan fee, while Al Shabab will cover all of Mina’s €1.4million-a-year wages, which will be tax-free.

When the victim’s defence heard Mina could be about to leave Spain, they applied to the court for him to be immediately put into custody due to a concern that he was fleeing Spanish justice. Nevertheless, he was allowed to fly to Saudi Arabia without any issues, and there were no problems receiving permission to live and work in the Gulf nation.

The Almeria Supreme Court is expected to rule on Mina’s appeal late this year or early in 2023. His defence have already said they are prepared to take the case to Spain’s Supreme Court, meaning the player could return to Celta at the end of the loan without the situation being fully resolved.

Should the appeals process end with Mina being found not guilty of all charges, he will be free to continue his life and career. If the guilty verdict is upheld, he will likely serve two-thirds of the four-year sentence — two years and eight months.

The victim now lives in Ibiza, where she is trying to get on with her life. She has turned down numerous offers from Spanish media outlets to tell her story, preferring to remain anonymous and not continually relive the events. She especially wants to avoid being used by politicians or commentators in their own cultural war debates.

Mina will no longer appear in the Spanish media each week, but the appeals process means that for the next two years or more, it will inevitably be present in her life.

At Celta, there was relief that the issue was sorted (for now) and that the club could use the space freed up within their La Liga salary limit to add another centre-forward for this season. Among many of the club’s fans, the solution found was not a huge surprise and also a disappointment.

“We do not believe it’s a coincidence that he is going to a country where women have no rights and violence against women is not even recognised,” Fernandez says. “It is a way of escaping justice. And Celta are facilitating his departure.”

One development is a new “Only yes means yes” legislation being introduced by the Spanish government which will codify that silence or passivity do not equal consent during a sexual incident. It will also close the distinction between sexual abuse (four years) and sexual aggression (eight years) by making explicit consent the deciding factor.

This is a positive step, says Martinez, but much more progress in this area is required.

“There are things which you cannot go back to, cannot stop, cannot take a backward step,” Martinez says. “We want to keep advancing with something that is good for everyone, men and women. Maybe a small move in the right direction. The world of football is difficult. The change in the law is positive, necessary. But in the end, it is what we want, not to just leave it at slogans, but real changes. Football is so important for children, for the construction of masculinity from when they are infants, how kids are socialised.”

The Mina case can be seen as a missed opportunity by Celta, and by Spanish football in general. It might have sparked a conversation about the prevalence of sexual assault in society, helping to educate players, executives and fans, about the issues involved. Instead, it became more about narrowly protecting the interests of different parties involved, without any regard to how this would affect either the victim in this specific case or the many female Spanish football fans who have also suffered sexual assault or abuse during their lives.

“There are many ways to use this case to make a campaign, build awareness, and really help with the problem of violence against women,” Fernandez says. “But it has been just the opposite.”

(Main graphic – photo: Getty Images/design: Eamonn Dalton)

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