The start of October marked the beginning of Black History Month but it seems some Bulgarian football fans did not get the memo. England’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria was almost abandoned due to the disgraceful level of racism that was targeted at Black English players.
Despite England’s 6-0 victory, the celebrations have been clouded by the discriminatory behaviour of the Bulgarian fans. Greg Clark, Chairman of the Football Association, has described the shocking game as “one of the most appalling nights in football I have ever seen”.
What should have been a celebratory night for Tyrone Mings – as he made his international debut – became a sinister reminder that there is still a lot more to be done about racism, even in 2019. Every time Mings, Sterling or Rashford touched the ball, they were subjected to monkey chants and fascist Nazi salutes.
This resulted in the referee having to pause the match twice to wait for the chanting to stop but the game was never completely abandoned.
England fans sung “Who put the ball in the racists’ net?” as Raheem Sterling made it 4-0. It seems that this was the way that the team dealt with it, rising above the racism to let the football do the talking. However, does this really promote the right message?
As such a multicultural and diverse country, it is important to enforce a ‘zero tolerance’ rule to racism that UEFA alleges it has. If the England players had walked off the pitch, it would have cemented the match as a historic moment that came much closer to stamping racism out of the game for good. Is three points really enough of a statement?
Since the match, eleven members of the Lauta Army, the neo-Nazi gang responsible for the chants, have been arrested. Both the President of the Bulgarian Football Union, Borislav Mihaylov, and the Bulgarian Manager, Krasimir Balakov, have resigned, leaving the international team lacking authority.
No doubt UEFA will fine the Bulgarian football team, with the average fine in cases like this being around £45,000. When the hooliganism of the Liverpool fans in Heysel resulted in the England teams being banned from the Champions League for five years, it does make you wonder whether the Bulgarian national side need a temporary ban from international competitions. Demanding harsher penalties, anti-racism campaign group Kick It Out, states that there can be “no more pitiful fines or short stadium bans”.
Throughout all the commotion, it is important to note this incident involved only a small minority of Bulgarians in the stadium. Painting everyone with the same brush is racist in itself. At half time, Bulgarian captain, Ivelin Popov, confronted the racist gang, pleading with them to stop their chants. It is not as black and white to say that the Bulgarians are bad and the English are good.
In December 2018, there were reports of banana skins being thrown on the pitch during the Arsenal vs Tottenham Derby when Aubameyang scored. Likewise, in August 2019, Milwall were fined £10,000 as racist chants were sung during an FA cup match and there are many other cases of English fans being racist on social media. At the post-match press conference after the 2020 qualifier, England manager Gareth Southgate even stated: “My players, because of their experiences in our own country, are hardened to racism. I don’t know what that says about our society, but that’s the reality.”
Sadly, it seems that there is so much more to be done about racism – both in our own country and abroad – and perhaps the only way to do it is by imposing harsher punishments, rather than small fines or short stadium bans.
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