On Monday night in Sofia, Bulgaria, England comfortably won their 2020 European Championships qualifier 6-0 against the Bulgarians, but it isn’t the football that has been writing the headlines as the match was overshadowed by racist abuse directed at the England team from the stands.
Two goals each from Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley along with a goal apiece for Marcus Rashford and captain Harry Kane sealed England’s victory during the match which was stopped twice in order to warn the home fans about their racist behaviour. The initial halt to play came in the 28th minute when a stadium announcement was made to condemn the racist behaviour and to warn those responsible for the Nazi salutes and monkey chants that if they were to carry on then the game would be abandoned. During this first stoppage captain Harry Kane was in discussion with the referee whilst England Manager Gareth Southgate was speaking to several players about what the next steps taken were to be.
The second stoppage came just minutes before half time with England leading 3-0, at which point it was a strong possibility that England could leave the pitch and the game be abandoned. However, the game restarted for a second time after many of the group responsible for the behaviour left the stands wearing black hooded tops and bandanas covering their faces, whilst the Bulgarian captain could be seen pleading with his own fans to stop the abuse. England went on to win 6-0 but were well within their rights under UEFA protocol to walk off the pitch after the racial abuse suffered by players such as Raheem Sterling and Tyrone Mings.
The abuse has rightfully been widely condemned whilst many also praised the England team for taking a stand and rising above the hostile behaviour, but many are calling for the harshest of punishments to be imposed on Bulgaria such as hefty fines or expulsion from international competition such as the European Championships and World Cup. In the aftermath of the match four Bulgarian fans have been arrested for their racist abuse of the England players whilst the police are working to identify the others responsible. The President of the Bulgarian Football Union has also stepped down from his position following the match after the country’s Prime Minister stated that there would be no support of the national team, including financially, until he stepped down from the role of President.
Racism in football is evidently still rife as the match on Monday saw parts of the ground closed to spectators because Bulgaria had already been punished for racist behaviour against Kosovo and the Czech Republic during their games in June. The next step along with a fine would be to fully close the stadium so that matches are played behind closed doors without a crowd present before then taking the step to expel from a tournament. UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin has called for “the football family to wage war on racism” and added that “Football associations themselves cannot solve this problem. Governments too need to do more.” The FIFA President Gianni Infantino has said “all football governing bodies to join us and think together of new, stronger and more effective ways to eradicate racism in football.”
The reason that many are calling for the toughest of sanctions such as points deductions, forfeiture of matches or tournament expulsion is due to the fact that previous punishment has been deemed to be too soft on the offenders. For example, Besiktas were fined £30,000 in 2018 when a cat found its way on to the pitch during a match and Nicklas Bendtner was fined £80,000 for showing an unauthorised logo on the waistband of his shorts during a Euro 2012 game. Meanwhile teams and countries who are charged for racism often receive fines much less than Bendtner’s £80,000 and sometimes play a game behind closed doors but even for repeat offenders it will only be two games played behind closed doors. The most that has so far been handed down is an £80,000 fine to Romania for racism and crowd trouble in 2015 which shows that even the most severe cases of racism have been deemed not as punishable as Bendtner showing the Paddy Power logo.
UEFA has charged the Bulgarian Football Union for the fan’s racist behaviour, throwing of objects and disruption of the national anthem whilst the English FA have also been fined for the disruption of a national anthem as well as failing to provide an adequate number of travelling stewards to Sofia.
The investigation is under way into the racism on Monday night and UEFA will announce the further punishment to be imposed on Bulgaria which provides them with the chance to set a precedent of no tolerance which results in severe sanctions, or they can continue with inconsequential fines and inadequate punishments, even when against repeat offenders.