England’s win over Bulgaria overshadowed by racist abuse
Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings all subjected to abuse from the stands
Bulgarian fans during the Euro 2020 qualifier between Bulgaria and England. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Given the history and given the build-up, in which claim and counter-claim had flown, raising the temperature around this Euro 2020 qualifier, it was easy to fear the worst. But when it did happen, when the monkey chants towards Tyrone Mings did start from a section of the Bulgaria support, there could only be shock and revulsion.
Mings, who ought to have revelled in the thrill of wearing the senior England shirt for the first time, was not the only black player to be targeted. Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford also heard the disgusting noises, meaning that England’s victory was very quickly relegated to a footnote.
The idea for Gareth Southgate and his players was to show their capacity to bounce back from Friday’s 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in Prague and they did that in some style. But this was an altogether different kind of psychological test in front of a crowd in which Nazi salutes were performed. The mindless minority brought shame on Bulgaria.
It was deeply distressing simply to watch from inside the stadium, to feel the skin crawl whenever one of England’s black players got on the ball in anticipation of what might happen and so goodness knows how Mings, Sterling and Rashford were able to continue.
After the chants had started, Sterling gilded the scoreline with two smart finishes. “Who put the ball in the racists’ net? Raheem Sterling,” chanted the England support.
Southgate had made it plain that he and his players would follow Uefa’s three-step protocol and so they did. Firstly, there was an announcement over the PA system to urge the chants to stop before, at half-time, following talks with Uefa officials, it was made plain that if there were any further incidents, England would walk off the field and not come back. To put it bluntly, that felt inevitable and the only wonder was that we were able to get through the second half because the chants towards Sterling in the 56th minute were clearly audible.
England’s last visit to this stadium in 2011 for a Euro qualifier had been scarred by monkey chants from the crowd towards Ashley Cole, Ashley Young and Theo Walcott. So much for the progress that the Bulgarian Football Union president, Borislav Mikhailov, had trumpeted last week. It was a night when the one pre-match hope was for nothing unsavoury to happen off the field but with tensions simmering in a half-empty stadium - and sounds carrying - that hope would quickly disintegrate.
There were 24 minutes on the stadium clock when Harry Kane began a conversation with the referee, Ivan Bebek, and Southgate did likewise with the Uefa official on the sideline. Moments later, an announcement crackled over the PA system, which amounted to step one of Uefa’s anti-racism protocol. The voice made it plain that unless the racist chants stopped, the game would “be suspended and may be abandoned”.
It was not difficult to pick out the monkey chants after Mings had played a pass out of defence and it was clear the England debutant had heard them because he turned towards a section of the crowd, stood still for a moment and stared. This was supposed to be a glorious occasion for the Aston Villa centre-half, the fulfilment of a boyhood dream. How it soured.
This stadium holds 44,000 but the capacity was reduced by 5,000 as a punishment from Uefa for the behaviour of the Bulgaria support in the June qualifiers against Czech Republic and Kosovo, which was ruled to have been racist. The cordoned-off area behind one of the goals was adorned with anti-racism banners. But there were further large swathes of empty seats, giving a slightly curious feel to the spectacle. From the moment that Mings was targeted, the game ceased to be a spectacle. It was deeply edgy.
At that point, England were 2-0 up and playing well, even though the action came to feel incidental. The opening goal came from a moment of real quality from Rashford, which made light of the statistic that showed he had previously scored just one goal in open play since March. Taking a pass from Barkley, he cut away from Georgi Pashov, sending the defender skidding in the wrong direction, before coming inside and unloading a vicious shot through the grasp of Plamen Iliev. The second was laid on by Raheem Sterling, who swapped passes with Harry Kane and drove across goal to present Barkley with a tap-in.
The England support directed a bellowed chant to their Bulgarian rivals: “You racist bastards, you know what you are.” Mings heard further monkey taunts on at least two occasions before half-time and the only wonder was the players did not leave the pitch. There was, though, a lengthy stoppage before the interval, during which the Bulgarian captain, Ivelin Popov, appeared to be urging England players to calm down.
England scored twice more before half-time and what a pity that their imposing football rang so hollow. Kane picked out Barkley to head past Iliev while Trippier and Kane ushered in Sterling. By then, onlookers were simply wondering how much worse the situation would get and whether the game would finish. Somehow it did. Sterling’s second was well taken and Kane rounded off the rout with the sixth. It would have been double figures but for the resistance of Iliev. The full-time whistle was the only mercy. - Guardian