Time to get tougher on racism after horrific hostility in Sofia

England’s recent 6-0 drubbing of Bulgaria was overshadowed by disgraceful scenes of racism from the home crowd, causing play to be stopped twice as officials even looked into abandoning the game.

Before the match England players expressed their concern that they may be victims of such abuse, especially given previous racist incidents in Sofia as recently as June. However, despite the shameful circumstances and hostile atmosphere, Gareth Southgate’s men put in a highly professional and dominant performance. It’s just a shame that this game will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, reigniting serious questions about racism in both football and wider society.

England’s impressive debutant Tyrone Mings was an early victim of abuse from the stands, and after Raheem Sterling was also targeted the referee stopped the game in the 28th minute. It was agreed that the game would continue, even though just before half-time it seemed like England’s players themselves may have been considering walking off the pitch. The end of the first half saw Bulgaria’s captain Ivelin Popov desperately plead with the ultras to stop their torrent of abuse.

Television cameras managed to pick up footage of a group of men in the stands who appeared to be giving Nazi salutes, alongside the abhorrent tirade of monkey chanting that was directed towards England’s black players. The second half felt somewhat surreal, as Bulgaria’s players appeared dejected and went into capitulation against a rampant England side. Raheem Sterling, in scoring twice, responded to his abusers in the most emphatic way possible.

Questions must now be directed at Bulgaria, as some form of strict punishment surely awaits them. Despite the brave actions of their captain at half-time, their manager Krasimir Balakov denied hearing any of the abuse directed towards England’s players.

Reports from the stadium, including from Mings himself, suggest that the abuse was “as clear as day,” leaving the Bulgarian manager in an embarrassing situation. Prior to the game many pundits and players had suggested that England’s footballers would have to confront racist abuse during the game, and what followed was a case of England’s and UEFA’s worst fears coming true.

At its best football is a game that encompasses all races and ethnicities, as shown by this England team and countless numbers of Europe’s leading sides. Nonetheless, it still cannot fully break free of the tribal chains that once gave the game an awful reputation, and in which racism and homophobia were rife throughout the sport.

For all of the hashtags and social media campaigns employed by UEFA, the harsh reality is that racism still plagues football more than any other sport, as seen here in Bulgaria, but also with similar incidents in Russia. Racism thrives in insular and narrow-minded societies, and more of an effort to tackle these issues, not just for football’s sake, must be made.

Merely calling out Bulgaria for racism will not consign to history nights like the one in Sofia, and despite six arrests being made this week, many believe that football needs to take a much more active role in dealing with this problem head on.

Education and very strict punishments are the best way to tackle such sentiments, as has been shown here in the UK, as we too have also had serious issues with racism in football. UEFA must take a lead on this, and with all the money flowing around in the game, a more coherent, aggressive and direct strategy must be taken to stamp this out. The beautiful game ceases to be so when Nazi salutes and monkey chants dominate the headlines. Football deserves better.

 

Image: Антон Зайцев

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