By Andrew Warshaw
October 15 – Forget the 6-0 scoreline, impressive though it was. The resurgence of racism sweeping through European football reached a new low at international level on Monday when England’s Euro 2020 qualifier in Bulgaria was halted twice after home fans were warned about racist behaviour including Nazi salutes and monkey chanting.
Despite the Bulgarian authorities declaring they did not have a racism problem, the worst fears of England’s players were realised as the fixture was halted in the 28th minute and again in the 43rd.
UEFA’s three-step anti-discrimination protocol, which could (perhaps should) have resulted in the game being abandoned, was not applied in full when the chanting died down but it was as close as any competitive fixture had come to being called off. In line with the protocol, England had the option to walk off the pitch but played the full 90 minutes.
England’s Football Association called on UEFA to take “very stringent” action after Bulgaria supporters were seen directing monkey chants at England ‘s players, performing Nazi salutes and holding up shirts with the UEFA logo proclaiming ‘No Respect’ – a cynical reference to the European governing body’s ‘Respect’ campaign aimed at curbing racism.
During the first break in play, the public announcer warned that the match could be called off unless the racist abuse stopped — the first step in UEFA’s protocol. During the second stoppage, dozens of Bulgaria fans involved in the chanting, many of them wearing dark hoodies, left the stadium.
“I would like to see a very stringent review by UEFA because I know they take racism very seriously,” English FA Chairman Greg Clarke said.
The FA also issued a statement saying the England players “were subjected to abhorrent racist chanting,” which seemed to be aimed mainly at black players.
“As we are sadly aware, this is not the first time our players have been subjected to this level of abuse and there is no place for this kind of behaviour in society, let alone in football. We will be asking UEFA to investigate as a matter of urgency,” the FA said.
Bulgaria captain Ivelin Popov appeared to plead with a section of home fans at halftime.
“It was quite clear to hear on the pitch, but we showed a great response, we showed a good togetherness and ultimately we let the football do the talking,” England defender Tyrone Mings, one of those targeted, told ITV. “We made a decision at halftime to come out and play the game which we thought was the right decision and if anything else had happened we would have taken appropriate action.”
The Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia was already subject to a partial closure after Bulgaria was sanctioned for racist chanting during qualifiers against Kosovo and the Czech Republic.
“We have made two statements by winning the game but also we have raised the awareness of everyone of the situation,” said England manager Southgate, whose team bounced back superbly from the 2-1 upset by the Czech Republic last Friday.
“I don’t think that’s ever been a situation that’s happened before in international football. For me, an even bigger statement was the way our players played.
“We’ve got players that have been through something they should never have to experience but have actually come off with a smile on their face because of how they’ve played.
Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov “strongly condemned” the behaviour of the fans and called for the head of the country’s football association to resign though more because of what happened on the pitch than off it.
“I call on Borislav Mihaylov to immediately resign as president of the Bulgarian Football Union,” he said.
“After yesterday’s shameful loss of the Bulgarian National Team and given the bad results of our football, I ordered to end any relationship with BFU, including financial, until the withdrawal of Borislav Mihaylov from the post.”
Before the match, Mihaylov had complained to UEFA about “unjust branding” of his country’s image amid fears England’s players could be subjected to abuse.
UEFA said it was too soon to decide what action to take but anti-discriminatory body Fare called for Bulgaria to be thrown out of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
“We think that after what happened, UEFA has it in their power to kick Bulgaria out of Euro 2020 qualification for sure,” said Fare’s Eastern Europe development officer Pavel Klymenko.
“There have been too many incidents, too much negligence from the Bulgarian FA. Uefa should make an example of the Bulgarian FA and expel them from the competition.”
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