Racism in England match proves UEFA sanctions are not enough


On Monday, England’s victory over Bulgaria was their biggest win since the Euro 2016 qualifiers. But nobody is celebrating.

Instead, all focus has been on the racist behaviour of Bulgaria fans inside the Levski Stadium. 

The game was stopped twice in the first half due to Nazi salutes and monkey chanting towards the England players from Bulgarian supporters.

In the week leading up to the game, England’s Tammy Abraham and Trent Alexander-Arnold discussed leaving the pitch if they felt uncomfortable against Bulgaria, a topic which manager Gareth Southgate also spoke on. 

This made for a tense build-up to the match. With England 2-0 ahead, defender Tyrone Mings – for whom this was a first England appearance – complained about abusive chants which led to a stoppage just before the half-hour mark. Play eventually resumed, but was halted again after 43 minutes. It transpires that England could have chosen to abandon the match at this point, but as a team they opted to play out the rest of the game.

Before the match, Bulgaria’s football chief Borislav Mihaylov had lashed out at England’s plans to walk off, claiming it was “unjust branding of the local spectators as people inclined to discriminatory behaviour.”

However, Southgate and England seemed to be preparing wisely. In March, both Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose were subject to racist abuse from supporters during England’s 5-1 victory in Montenegro. Debutant Callum Hudson-Odoi also had to retrieve an object that had been thrown onto the pitch.

England reported the incidents to UEFA, who responded by fining Montenegro £17,000 and ordering their fixture against Kosovo to be played behind closed doors. 

The Bulgarian support also has a bad record when it comes to racist incidents. The team’s Euro 2020 qualifying matches against Kosovo and Czech Republic in June both featured racial abuse from fans. UEFA’s sanction was to partially close their stadium for the match against England, a punishment that has proven to be ineffectual.

The England national team has even received abuse in Sofia before. Monkey chanting was aimed at Ashley Cole and Ashley Young in September 2011. Drawing comparisons between that match and this one makes it clear how little progress has been achieved in those eight years.

The response to the fan behaviour from the Bulgaria camp has been mixed. Captain Ivelin Popov has been praised by the media and England’s Marcus Rashford for speaking to a section of the crowd at the half time, pleading for them to stop their chants.

However, post-match, goalkeeper Plamen Iliev claimed that the reaction of the England players was excessive. His coach Krasimir Balakov seemed to be in agreement, saying that he didn’t hear any racist chants. The comment from Montenegro’s head coach on events back in March was exactly the same.

Image result for popov

Bulgaria captain Ivelin Popov pleads with the home fans to stop their racist behaviour – photo: Metro online

On this occasion, UEFA have been quick to respond. Less than 24 hours after the match, Bulgaria have been charged with racist behaviour, including monkey chants and Nazi salutes. Perhaps though, this was only a reaction to the amount of attention the incidents have received. The events of Bulgaria’s matches against Kosovo and Czech Republic weren’t as publicised and the punishment of only a partial stadium closure seemed not to match the crime. 

The lesson learned from this match is that a partial stadium closure is not enough to keep racism out of football. Raheem Sterling was interviewed after England’s game against Montenegro in March; asked what suitable punishment would be to racist abuse, he said: “I think it should be the whole stadium that no-one can come and watch here.”

Perhaps, had UEFA listened, Tyrone Mings could have enjoyed his England debut a little more easily.


Comments are closed.