England’s dark night in Sofia will go down in sporting infamy

Bulgarian manager saying he noticed nothing was an anatomy of cowardly dissembling

England players wait during a stoppage in the Euro 2020 qualifier between England and Bulgaria for racist abuse. Photo: Getty Images

England players wait during a stoppage in the Euro 2020 qualifier between England and Bulgaria for racist abuse. Photo: Getty Images

 

Welcome to the new world. We came expecting a football match. What we got was a miserable occasion on a miserable night in a miserable stadium against miserable opposition played out to a miserable backdrop of recrimination and bad blood.

By the end this did not feel like a sporting event at all. It felt like an open sore, an affront to the basic idea of nations coming together to exchange flags, in a stadium transformed into a well of poison.

England’s players were racially abused by sections of the home crowd throughout. There were Nazi salutes in the stands, this in a nation that embraced the fascism of the Third Reich within living memory.

In the middle of which there were also strange, grisly little details. As England walked off at half-time Bulgaria’s captain, Ivelin Popov, could be seen leaning into fencing to appeal to the home fans to stop the racist chanting that threatened to curtail this sorry spectacle.

As a statement threatening to abandon the match was read out over the PA a woman in the home section laughed and made mock thumbs-down gestures, as though this was all a rave, a lark, a pantomime.

An hour after the final whistle, just as Greg Clarke, the chairman of the FA, had talked about, among other things, England’s backroom staff being deeply upset by events on the pitch, Bulgarian journalists could be seen laughing and joking, greeting this horror show not with shame or remorse, but as though it was, at worst, an inconvenience.

The statement from Bulgaria’s manager, Krasimir Balakov, that he had not noticed anything, that he just wanted to talk about football, was an anatomy of cowardly dissembling. Balakov had a responsibility to his sport and to basic human decency. He failed on both counts.

Somehow England played brilliantly in the middle of all this, a game that fell apart around them at times and against opponents who barely played at all. Who knows, perhaps this might come to seem like a righteous occasion.

Racist abuse in football stadiums has been a source of unhappiness for as long as there has been racist abuse and football stadiums. There was at least some sense of action being taken in the enforcement of the under-enforced Uefa protocols at the fag end of so many inadequate fines and decisive measures never put in place. By the end, the spectacle of England playing on felt, rightly or wrongly, like a kind of resistance.

A kind of history was made as for the first time football made a live intervention. The half-time break was the third stoppage of the game. The first came just after England’s second goal. As the England end celebrated the sounds of joy and exhilaration were replaced by chants of “You racist b******s, you know what you are”. Provocative perhaps but also prescient and entirely accurate. The first monkey chants from the home crowd were heard shortly after.

They were directed at Tyrone Mings, who took the ball by the touchline and was greeted by a small group of Bulgarians making the hated, hateful noises. Mings made his pass then turned and stared at the crowd. In that moment your heart broke slightly. Here was a man on his England debut, fielding with the utmost grace and composure not just vile abuse but a moment that will echo far beyond this shabby-looking pitch.

Bulgarian fans can be seen making right-arm salutes during the game which was marred by racist abuse. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Bulgarian fans can be seen making right-arm salutes during the game which was marred by racist abuse. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Moments later, Gareth Southgate could be seen talking to the Uefa official Danilo Filacchione, pointing over at the far side where the noise had come from. Filacchione spoke into his walkie-talkie. The game paused. And so we waited. Finally, the PA announcement came, a thin, anxious, hectoring voice that drew boos and shrieks from the home crowd.

“Because of racist behaviour among spectators which is interfering with the game the referee has indicated he may have to suspend the match.

“Please be under no mistake the game will be suspended and may be abandoned if the racist behaviour continues.”

We crawled on, horribly. At 40 minutes there was more of the same as Mings took the ball. A three-way discussion followed between manager, referee and Filacchione. There were whistles, jeers, objects thrown from the ultras in black at the far end close to the Bulgaria goal.

England shuffled together protectively. Finally, they walked back out to restart when they might have chosen to walk off, a decision that drew boos and whistles from the home crowd. Six minutes of stoppage time for racism, the board flashed up.

There was time for more abuse and time also for another goal as Kieran Trippier and Harry Kane (playing a wonderful hand as a creator in the middle of all this poison) set up Raheem Sterling for 4-0.

The second half felt like a wake, and not just for the idea of the game as a competitive exercise, as England scored six and might have had 10.

Bulgaria had played like a rabble. Their fans had disgraced their country and deeply embarrassed (it is to be hoped) their president, Boris Mikhailov. Presumably his apologies will be just as heartfelt as his complaints on Friday that Tammy Abraham had been wide of the mark in assuming all this would indeed come to pass in Bulgaria’s national stadium.

Will England ever want to come here again? Before kick-off their fans had filled their corner-slice of this sallow concrete bowl with the usual travelling pageantry of St George’s flags. The rest of the stadium was a half-empty husk. No great hardship shutting parts of this ground: the end opposite the banned area remained a sea of empty seats.

There will be a reckoning for the Bulgarian Football Association. Perhaps the protocols will now be used more often. What is a protocol anyway? A mode of behaviour, an attempt to civilise. What protocol did we see here? It isn’t enough. For now, no other European nation should be asked to play in Sofia. Lock the gates. Let the plastic seating moulder, the concrete crack.

Yet, beyond this, the idea Uefa can realistically staunch this kind of performative racist protest is laughable. These Bulgarians were not having a moment or allowing their usual high standards to slip. They were gleefully taking the opportunity to abuse black footballers and to demonstrate in some cases that they are fascists.

One thing is certain: the England team can be hugely proud of their grace under pressure. There was something majestic about those red shirts, still abused periodically but determined to see this through. Football carried on. But this cannot be allowed to pass. – Guardian

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