English soccer officials have called for UEFA to oust Bulgaria from EURO 2020 competition. English Football Association chairman Greg Clarke called the match “one of the most appalling nights I’ve seen in football.”
Bulgarian supporters seemingly targeted England player Tyrone Mings, who made his international debut Monday, and his other black teammates Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford.
“Hey, did you hear that?” questioned Mings in the first half, bringing the racist chants to the attention of the linesman and England manager Gareth Southgate.
“Please be under no mistake the game will be suspended and may be abandoned if the racist behavior continues,” said a stadium announcement following the first stoppage at the 27th minute with England already ahead, 2-0.
The match resumed after a three-minute pause as more announcements played over the public address system warning the match could be abandoned if the racist behavior continued.
“There are genuine difficulties in managing situations where the potential for such incidents is a real possibility — there are no easy solutions,” said Piara Powar, executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe. “This match reflected the very real reality in some parts of Europe with populist right-wing agendas and widespread attacks on minorities.”
Southgate complained to officials about more racist behavior in the 42nd minute, and the match was again halted for three minutes. According to UEFA’s three-step racism protocol, after a second warning, England was entitled to walk off the pitch if the abuse continued, but instead decided during halftime, with the score 4-0, to finish the match. Bulgarian captain Ivelin Popov spent much of intermission appealing to home fans to stop their jeers of English players, according to the Guardian.
“We were told by the officials that 500 people in the corner who caused a lot of trouble has been thrown out at halftime,” Clarke, the English FA chairman, told the Guardian. “They said that after that there were isolated examples of racist behavior, not massed examples, and the protocol deals with massed examples of racist behavior. They’ll have to collect more information from live footage of the game.
“I’m happy that Gareth was in control from our side. He got the players together when the first incident happened. Then, when the second incident happened the referee said, ‘Do you want to carry on?’ He said, ‘There are only four minutes to half-time, let’s get to the break and review it.’ He sat down with the players; they wanted to get out there and play.”
England fans could be heard chanting “who put the ball in the racists net?” after Sterling scored for England.
In Britain, the racism was widely condemned on Tuesday both in Parliament, on social media and on the front pages of the British tabloids.
“Football’s night of shame. England stand tall against the racists,” read the front page of the Daily Mirror. “Bulgar off, you racists,” wrote The Sun.
“The vile racism we saw and heard last night has no place in football or anywhere else. Fully support Gareth Southgate & the team for rising above it. Need to see strong swift action from UEFA,” tweeted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, lawmaker Rosena Allin-Khan said: “UEFA has a duty to act here, the world is watching. A fine is not enough, so I am asking our Government to ensure that we are backing up the FA to seek the harshest possible punishment.”
Lawmaker David Lammy also expressed anger and concern over the treatment of England’s players, tweeting: “Monkey chants and Nazis salutes from Bulgarian fans is utterly deplorable. England players should not have to put up with this kind of vile abuse. @UEFA must act and kick them out international football altogether.”
After the match, Bulgaria manager Krasimir Balakov claimed he did not hear the racist taunts while Bulgarian goalkeeper Plamen Iliev said he believed the home fans in the stadium “behaved well” and that England players “overreacted a bit.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live after the game, Mings said he could hear the racist abuse “as clear as day” but added that it was a “great night” for him as a player making his debut for England.
“It doesn’t affect me too much. I feel more sorry for those people who feel they have to have those opinions,” he added.
Marcus Rashford took to Twitter to thank fans for their “brilliant support” while adding that the game was “not an easy situation to play in.”
Sterling also took to Twitter to reprimand the behavior of the Bulgarian fans, writing that he felt sorry for the country to be “represented by such idiots in their stadium.” Sterling has been a frequent target of racists on British soil. A past study by FARE that included sending observers to matches across Europe to investigate and report claims of racism found that English fans are also among the world’s worst behaved spectators.
Despite the antagonistic atmosphere, England’s players were widely hailed by fans at home and abroad for their handling of the abuse and their decision to continue playing in Sofia.
“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,” The Guardian’s chief sportswriter penned on Tuesday, in a piece titled “England’s vile and disturbing night in Sofia will live long in sporting infamy.”
Bogage reported from Washington.