The UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) EURO 2020 Cup is well underway in the qualifying stages, with a total of 55 countries vying to reach the finals.
Tonight’s match in Group A between Bulgaria and England was held in the Levski Stadium in Sofia, with England eventually winning 6-0.
However, the match was marred by racist chanting & Nazi salutes from a minority of the Bulgarian supporters, known as ‘Ultras’, with the match being suspended twice in the first half.
Bulgaria has already suffered sanctions from UEFA for the racist behaviour of their fans, and sadly, some form of this behaviour was widely expected prior to this match.
England manager Gareth Southgate & captain Harry Kane were seen in discussion with the referee Ivan Bebek and UEFA officials on the touchline after the observed racism, which led to the temporary suspension of the match on two occasions.
UEFA have a 3-tier protocol for dealing with racism at matches;
For the first step, the referee will speak to the stadium announcer and demand the halting of racist behaviour;
– This step was enacted after 28 minutes after racist chants were heard being directed toward black England players.
Step 2 – If it continues, the referee can take the players off the field into the dressing rooms for a period of time and the stadium announcer will make another address;
– Although this wasn’t fully enacted, England manager Gareth Southgate brought further racist abuse to the referee’s attention just before half-time, in the 43rd minute and the game was again halted.
Step 3 – If the racism still continues, it will be the referee’s decision to abandon the match.
Thankfully, this step didn’t have to be taken. Hordes of apparent hardcore (or ultra) Bulgarian supporters, mostly dressed in black, Antifa-style clothing, were seen leaving the stadium just before half-time.
However, this was not before the Bulgarian team captain Ivelin Popov was seen pleading with the supporters to stop.
The second half of the match went relatively uninterrupted in terms of racism. The England team had the prior option to walk off the pitch but chose not to.
Two black England players, Marcus Rashford (Manchester United) & Raheem Sterling (Manchester City) were substituted by Southgate. A third black England player, Tyrone Mings, who also reported racist abuse remained on the pitch.
The English Football Association (F.A.), later confirmed that ‘…players were subject to abhorrent racial abuse’.
Following the match, Bulgaria coach Krasimir Balakov said he did not hear any racist chanting. He added he would be “truly sorry if it did turn out to be true”.
COMMENT (John Hepke, Europe-based news editor)
Football, (or rather ‘soccer’ to our American friends), embraces all nationalities, creeds, ethnicities, skin colour, sexual orientation & disabilities.
The vast majority of fans also embrace those aspects of ‘..the beautiful game’, a phrase accredited to the world-famous Brazilian football player Pelé.
Disappointingly, however, racism has never been far from soiling that credo.
In all countries where football/soccer is played, there has been an element of racism that has pervaded, to one degree or another.
Amidst shocking scenes tonight, in the first part of UEFA’s anti-racism protocol, the unprecedented stadium announcement was thus:
“This is an important stadium announcement. Because of racist behaviour, which is interfering with the game, the referee has indicated that he may have to suspend the match.
“Racism in football stadiums will not be tolerated. Please be in no doubt that the game will be suspended and may be abandoned if racist behaviour continues amongst spectators. Help everyone enjoy the game and say no to racism. Thank you.”
In the U.K., organizations such as ‘Kick It Out’ have long promoted the elimination of racism within football.
Kick It Out was established as a campaign with the brand name ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ in 1993 and as an organization in 1997. The organization works within the football, educational and community sectors to challenge discrimination, encourage inclusive practices and work for positive change.
Kickitout tonight issued a statement following the match;
It can only be hoped that the shocking scenes at tonight’s match will be vilified worldwide and some good will come of it, in the form of sanctions against Bulgaria which will hopefully encourage the former U.S.S.R. bloc country to adopt similar practices & policies.
Any sanctions will be decided after the submission of the referee’s report to UEFA.