Nazi salutes, menacing figures clad in black, and brazen racism. Not Germany in 1939 – this was the Bulgarian capital of Sofia 80 years on.
As a mixed-race person watching on from the comfort of my flat while England’s players of colour were subjected to monkey chants and boos by a bunch of brainless individuals 1,250 miles away, the overwhelming feeling was of almost no feeling at all, just numbness and a sickness in the pit of my stomach. This has somehow been allowed to become the norm in European football.
A lot has already been said about what the various parties involved should, could and would have done in the since the full-time whistle sounded on a balmy Monday night at the Vasil Levski Stadium; some believe England should have walked off, others say the referee should have halted the match as per UEFA’s three-step racism protocol.
But there is only one possible solution that would actually put an immediate stop to racism within football stadiums – ban crowds that offend from the first occasion, do not allow for a small minority to become serial offenders as has evidently been the case in Bulgaria, Croatia, at certain Italian clubs and beyond.
One thing that is abundantly clear is that partial stadium bans do not work – at all. Following incidents of racism during the Bulgarians’ Euro 2020 qualifier against the Czech Republic in June (there was more to follow in their clash with Kosovo and there is another closure to come as a result), UEFA ordered that 5,000 seats the 46,340-seater national stadium be made unavailable on Monday night.
That didn’t stop the black-clad idiot brigade from making their way into the stands to mar the occasion for everyone else, especially England’s black players. Poor Tyrone Mings – the wonderful achievement and memory of making his debut for his country will forever be tainted by this cluster of louts, a situation that could have been avoided if the deserved full ban had been in place.
The argument for walking off the pitch as soon as abuse is overheard is compelling – making a huge stand that would create a stir and hopefully have a significant impact, but it is perhaps not the most realistic or viable. It is easy to say that ‘the racists win’ should you leave the field upon hearing the abuse, but there is an element of giving in to the bullies by doing so. Do you think they really care whether the game reaches its conclusion or not, or do they simply want any opportunity to deliver their grim message from the stands? The willingness of the prime offenders to leave the ground at half time on Monday night suggests the latter.
Perhaps it is a consequence of the normalisation of racism in fixtures like this, but England’s players evidently didn’t want to leave the pitch, despite Tammy Abraham’s assertion that they would do so when he was quizzed on the subject last week. Tyrone Mings admitted as much in the aftermath of the uncomfortable encounter, revealing that the players had agreed to play on. And that was hardly surprising considering these guys live to play football and had travelled 1,250 miles to play there.
We should be protecting our players by removing the need for them to even be in these places in the first place. Call me cynical, but I don’t think England’s squad would mind missing out on the trip to the far reaches of eastern Europe on a Monday night. The onus should not be on the players to make the decision to leave the field of play themselves, instead the so-called governing body UEFA should be punishing these nations appropriately. Gladly, rather than trudge from the grass under the lights as the abuse rained down, the England team’s affront to racism was to batter their hosts 6-0 and still manage to smile through the pain and anger.
UEFA and other governing bodies have misguidedly put the emphasis on attempting to educate those supporters who deem it necessary to make these gestures and sounds towards professional football players based on the colour of their skin. This sunshine and lollypops approach is with a view to gradually removing all forms of racism from the game.
But why does it have to be gradual? If they aren’t there in the first place then these issues will not arise. The neanderthals in the stands on Monday and those who will follow in their footsteps don’t warrant the time or energy. You can only hope that the next generation will learn from their elders’ mistakes.
Fundamentally, these people should not be given the platform to repeatedly and flagrantly offend with their abhorrent noises and displays of their far-right political stance. Extended full stadium bans for the duration of qualifying campaigns and home and away friendlies would remove that platform, and should any fans reoffend once they are finally allowed back into the ground then that should simply result in an expulsion from whichever tournament they are competing in or competing to be in.
Of course this punishment is inconsequential to the likes of Bulgaria and Montenegro, who are essentially just making up the numbers in qualifying and stand no real chance of reaching Euro 2020 with squads almost entirely devoid of quality. It is an aside, but England’s hosts were awful on Monday – San Marino and Andorra levels of awful, with all due respect to those two minnows.
Despite their losing battle, Bulgaria captain Ivelin Popov’s pleading with his own fans to cease and desist on Monday night reflects how desperate the players would be to avoid a situation where even their slim hopes of reaching a major tournament are extinguished.
For the likes of Croatia though, whose supporters also have a chequered past, qualification and participation in tournaments is life or death, especially while they have a squad capable of reaching a World Cup final. They looked a shell of that side when they hosted England in an empty HNK Rijeka Stadium in the Nations League a year ago, with their supporters barred from the ground after a swastika was etched on the pitch before a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy. They eventually finished bottom of the three-team group – make of that what you will.
It is easy to forget that Spain, too, have previously had issues with racism on the international stage, including against England in 2004. You can imagine the Spanish football federation would not tolerate the possibility of missing out on a major tournament, nor the fans, and therefore the racism would be stamped out immediately.
Monday night was hailed as a watershed moment in football’s war against racism and step one of UEFA’s three-step protocol – pausing the match, making a stadium announcement and asking the fans to stop – was labelled a success as the abuse was muted in the second half. But did it really work? Well, no. Players and pundits still reported hearing the vile abuse in the second period despite the departure of the group of ignorant black-clad morons.
The reality is that there should be no need for a three-step system in the first place, all you need is one – if your fans racially abuse the opposition, they are completely banned for an extended period, and if they do it again upon their return, they are expelled from that competition. It’s surely the only way to stamp out racism in football stadiums immediately.
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