The scenes were dispiritingly familiar.
The jeering at black players. The monkey noises. The close-up shots of the fans from whom the vitriol emanated, bold enough to weaponize their bigotry, yet too cowardly to show their faces as they made Nazi salutes. A game stopped. More jeering. A second stop. More jeering.
Yet a small measure of progress may have been made. Or perhaps not. Action was taken. But maybe it was insufficient. It’s in the eye of the beholder. The word “seminal” was used. The argument was also made that it was a missed opportunity. It may not have been either, exactly, but it was something, another marker laid.
Thing is, more could have been done still. Perhaps they all didn’t go far enough.
Large sections of the Vasil Levski National Stadium in Sofia had already been closed because of previous transgressions by the Bulgarian national team’s fans, when they hosted England in a Euro 2020 qualifier on Monday. The vacated seats were covered with anti-racism signage. Evidently, this hadn’t worked as a prophylactic against further racism.
It didn’t take long for a subset of the home fans to spill their racism over England’s black players, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings, the latter making a debut notable both for his performance and the circumstance.
Mings, boldly and fearlessly, asked one of the assistant referees if he’d heard the racist chanting. Captain Harry Kane complained to the referee as well, as did manager Gareth Southgate. In the 27th minute, the game was stopped as a message sounded over the public announcement system – the first step in UEFA’s three-part protocol for racist abuse. The second step is to pull the players from the field as the message is played again. The third is to abandon the game.
By this point, England was ahead 2-0 against a woeful Bulgaria, which hasn’t won in more than a year. And it was 3-0 by the time the game had to be stopped again in the 43rd minute, when a large group of black-clad home fans left the stadium – possibly because they were ejected, nobody seems to be certain.
At this point, England apparently was given the option to go to the locker room as the second step of the protocol. It seems to have declined.
At halftime, Southgate and his team decided to go back out to play the second half. It was 4-0 by then. The team’s reluctance to stop the game and reprise it another time – or fight for some kind of forfeit – was understandable. The job was done, there only remained three quarters of an hour to complete. English federation officials decided to watch the second half from the stands, rather than their luxury box, in solidarity with the players – for whatever that was worth.
Elsewhere during the intermission, Bulgaria captain Ivelin Popov was seen pleading with a few apparent leaders among the fans through the fence. Whatever he said didn’t work either. More jeering at the black players. It sounded from afar, through the TV broadcast, that it was diminished, yet it remained undeniably present according to the witnesses.
The game carried on. The second and third phase of the protocol were never enacted as England ambled to a 6-0 victory that will feel deeply satisfying to some and wholly meaningless to others. “Who put the ball in the racists’ net? Raheem Sterling!” the traveling England fans chanted, as the Manchester City forward scored twice.
Southgate told English channel ITV that it had all been “an unacceptable situation” and that England had “made two statements by winning the game, but also we have raised awareness of everyone of the situation. The game was stopped twice. I know for some people that won’t be enough.”
It wasn’t. Because it’s unlikely very many Bulgarian minds were changed, or willful ignorance addressed – and it should be noted here that English soccer has its own deeply rooted racism problem. To wit, Bulgaria’s manager, Krasimir Balakov, claimed he hadn’t heard anything racist. He even ventured that his captain likely hadn’t addressed racism with the fans at halftime. “It was probably because the fans were unhappy with the way the team was performing,” he told the press.
This is the classic enabling of stadium racism, just as we’ve seen in Italy, where nobody will even acknowledge the problem, much less confront it.
What the legacy of this game shall be, however, is fuzzy. Football Association chairman Greg Clarke called the game “probably one of the most appalling nights I’ve seen in football.” Yet former Arsenal and England star Ian Wright, who is black and endured far more than his share of racism, saw real meaning in the event. He called it a “fantastic moment, a seminal moment,” on ITV. “What’s good about this is that this is a generation of players and people now – not just black players – who won’t tolerate this anymore.”
From his vantage point, that anything had been done at all was a win. The issue wasn’t simply ignored and undercut with platitudes about the victory being suitable and abundant payback for the wrongs done.
But it all begs the question: What could have been achieved if the protocol had been carried out properly and fully?
It isn’t clear if the failure to do so lay with referee Ivan Bebek of Croatia, who certainly seemed willing to act; England’s decision to soldier on and take home the precious points after an unexpected loss to the Czech Republic on Friday; or UEFA’s disinterest in enforcing its own rules, revealing once again that its larger goal is merely to be seen as doing the right thing.
If England had really walked off the field, or even refused to finish the game, the attention would have been that much greater, and an even stronger statement made. But then that would have perhaps come at a cost to its own cause. And that’s a hell of a hard decision to have to make in the heat of qualifying.
But what’s quite clear in all of this is that UEFA is to blame for even putting the players and teams in this predicament. They shouldn’t have to make that choice. Bulgaria had a prior conviction but was nevertheless allowed to repeat its offenses. A bit more forcefulness and a little less fear from the governing body could have prevented this situation entirely.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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