A rampant England racked up a vital three points by winning 6-0 in Bulgaria, yet one of the most uncomfortable games of football in recent years saw the game almost called off due to racist abuse.
England manager Gareth Southgate’s focus going into the game had been on a victory and performance to help English fans forget the events of Friday night in Prague, when the Czech Republic won and England were insipid and uninspired.
Yet, despite the performance and result they desired, England were left angry and frustrated after play was halted during the first half not once but twice as racist abuse of England players from Bulgarian supporters threatened to derail the game entirely.
That England moved through the first two stages of UEFA protocols to effectively bring the game to the brink of being abandoned – the third stage of those protocols – tells you everything you need to know about how serious the abuse was.
Tyrone Mings, making his full England debut, swung round angrily to the linesman to ask, ‘Did you hear that?’ after a particularly vocal period of abuse, while Raheem Sterling endured disgusting chants of ‘monkey noises’ throughout.
While England players reacted with professionalism, the entire squad, management team and backroom staff needed to highlight the abuse and twice did so, leading to warnings across the public address system to the offending Bulgarian fans.
Just before half-time, some of those who chose to chant, make Nazi salutes or generally abuse BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) members of the England squad left the stadium, at the time it being unclear whether that was because they were asked or decided to vacate the premises.
England returned for the second half, the result no longer in doubt thanks to three goals in an entertaining first half, yet the game wasn’t even expected to reach a conclusion by many observers at home or in the Vasil Levski Stadium.
England ran out 6-0 winners, with braces for both Ross Barkley and, cheered to the rafters by the travelling England fans, Sterling, whose performance under the highest scrutiny further confirmed his status in the game as a player with the heart to match his skill in conducting the attack and leading the opposition defenders a merry dance.
Both Sterling and Kane were sublime, contributing goals and assists galore between them, and while England will undoubtedly face tougher tests in the European Championship they are virtually assured of qualifying for now – a draw at home to Montenegro will stamp their tickets – their attacking flair was there for all to see.
In the aftermath of the game, the president of the Bulgaria Football Union, Borislav Mihaylov, has resigned after his own Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov, led calls for his to leave his post following the game in Sofia.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin followed the game with a very strong statement urging the worldwide football family to come together in order to drive the evil of racism out of the game. Here’s the UEFA statement in full:
“There were times, not long ago, when the football family thought that the scourge of racism was a distant memory. The last couple of years have taught us that such thinking was, at best, complacent. The rise of nationalism across the continent has fueled some unacceptable behaviour and some have taken it upon themselves to think that a football crowd is the right place to give voice to their appalling views.
“As a governing body, I know we are not going to win any popularity contests. But some of the views expressed about UEFA’s approach to fighting racism have been a long way off the mark.
“UEFA, in close cooperation with the FARE network (Football Against Racism Europe), instituted the three-stage protocol for identifying and tackling racist behaviour during games. UEFA’s sanctions are among the toughest in sport for clubs and associations whose supporters are racist at our matches. The minimum sanction is a partial closure of the stadium – a move which costs the hosts at least hundreds of thousands in lost revenue and attaches a stigma to their supporters.
“UEFA is the only football body to ban a player for ten matches for racist behaviour – the most severe punishment level in the game. Believe me, UEFA is committed to doing everything it can to eliminate this disease from football. We cannot afford to be content with this; we must always strive to strengthen our resolve.
“More broadly, the football family – everyone from administrators to players, coaches and fans – needs to work with governments and NGOs to wage war on the racists and to marginalise their abhorrent views to the fringes of society. Football associations themselves cannot solve this problem. Governments too need to do more in this area. Only by working together in the name of decency and honour will we make progress.”
While events of last night in Sofia will assuredly live longer in the memory for the racist abuse, there is gathering hope that the stance taken by, in order, the England management, coaching and playing staff, as well as then by UEFA, will go some way towards making racism at a football ground a thing of the past.
That’s a victory every true fan will be celebrating should football reach that point. Just like England fans will hope for their team to qualify for Euro 2020, the sooner that happens, the better.