Racism has plagued European soccer for years. The sport has seen fans direct racial epithets at players, hold racist banners in the stands and hurl objects at opposing players and fans.
England has not been immune from the problem. Chelsea banned six fans, one for life, after racist abuse was directed at Manchester City striker Raheem Sterling, who also plays for the national team. Manchester United strike Marcus Rashford, also a national team member, said last month soccer was “going backward” when it came to race relations within the sport.
UEFA has punished Bulgaria with a partial stadium closure for the match against England because of racist fan behavior during recent matches against Czech Republic and Kosovo. The organization’s three-step protocol calls for stadium officials to warn fans to cease any racist behavior upon a first offense. If the behavior persists, the referee is to stop the game and remove the teams from the field. Finally, the referee is to halt the game if the abuse continues.
But Abraham told the BBC the team had agreed to walk off the field together and disregard the UEFA process on perhaps the first or second incident of abuse, which could result in an English forfeit.
“We did speak about that [the protocol],” Abraham said. “Harry Kane did ask the question about instead of going through the three steps, if we decide that we want to stop the game — no matter what the score is — if we’re not happy with it, as a team we’ll decide whether or not to stay on the pitch.
“If it happens and let’s say there’s a warning or whatever in the stadium, then it happens again, we have to make a decision as a team and with the staff.”
Defender Trent Alexander-Arnold, of club team Liverpool, said if fans went after one England player, the entire team would respond.
“Nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable on the pitch,” he said. “Everyone should be given the chance to play in a fair environment. We are a team. If one person is abused then we all are, we are one big family.”
But English Manager Gareth Southgate told reporters: “There is the UEFA process and we have to have faith in that process. Then everything else is hypothetical. We want the players to be able to concentrate on football, they want to be judged on football. What I’ve got to do is provide a secure, safe environment for them to play.”
This is the first time England’s team will play in Bulgaria since 2011, when English player Ashley Young was repeatedly called a “monkey” by sections of the crowd.
“As a player, with the situation that happened in Montenegro, I don’t think as a team we were quite prepared and knowing there was a protocol in place,” said Sterling, via Agence France-Presse. “As a team, we had a meeting and Gareth sat us down and explained there was a UEFA protocol. Now as players we have got to kind of give UEFA a chance to take that responsibility on board and deal with that situation.
“At this moment in time, full faith in UEFA.”
Those comments proved disconcerting for Bulgarian soccer officials. The president of the Bulgarian Football Union, Borislav Mikhaylov, wrote to UEFA, asking the organization to discipline the English side for spreading, “derogatory claims” the local spectators were “people inclined to discriminatory behavior,” according to The Guardian.
UEFA has ordered Bulgaria to close at least 5,000 seats in its stadium, according to the AFP, and display a banner that reads “#EqualGame.”