Anti-racism campaigners slam UEFA’s Bulgarian sanction as weak and ‘disheartening’

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October 30 – English anti-discrimination campaigners have denounced UEFA for failing to throw Bulgaria out of the competition, or at least dock points, as punishment for their fans’ racist abuse of England players in the recent Euro 2020 qualifier between the sides.

Bulgaria have been ordered to play two matches behind closed doors – one suspended for two years – following England’s 6-0 win in Sofia  that was twice halted and could even have been abandoned.

The hosts already had a partial stadium closure for that match after being found guilty of racist behaviour in fixtures against the Czech Republic and Kosovo in June. But UEFA stopped short of imposing a more severe sentence even though they also fined the Bulgarians €75,000.

The fans’ behaviour included Nazi salutes and monkey chants and UEFA’s ruling has been criticised by anti-racism charity Kick it Out, European-wide anti-discrimination body Fare and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA).

Bulgaria are bottom of their group and cannot qualify directly for next summer’s finals. But as things stand, they would be in line for a play-off spot due to their results in the League of Nations last year.

The stadium closure will be likely to cost Bulgarian football authorities at least €100,000 in lost revenue but Kick It Out said it was “disheartened, but not surprised” by UEFA’s punishment adding that European football’s governing body “missed an opportunity to send an uncompromising message on racism and discrimination.”

It said the decision would give anyone affected by abusive behaviour “little faith” that UEFA was doing anywhere near enough to prevent it.

“The current sanctions, however ‘tough’ UEFA think they may be, are clearly not working and leave victims with little faith in their ability to prevent abusive behaviour,” said Kick it Out in a statement.

“We feel UEFA’s entire disciplinary process in response to racial discrimination should be overhauled, and urge them to explain the decision-making process behind their sanctions for incidents of discrimination.”

The PFA said UEFA’s guidelines need to be “overhauled” with “far stronger deterrents imposed” such as expelling teams from competitions, adding: “Only then can the issue of racism be seriously confronted.”

It also called for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation on UEFA’s control, ethics and disciplinary committee – the group responsible for deciding the punishment.

“This lack of diversity, we believe, will influence the way in which racist incidents are dealt with by the panel,” the PFA said. “Diversity on the pitch must be reflected at every level of the game, not just on the field of play.”

After the game, both the president of the Bulgaria Football Union (BFU), Borislav Mihaylov, and Bulgaria manager Krasimir Balakov resigned and Fare said it was “disappointed” Bulgaria were not expelled “given their previous record and obvious inability to deal with the problems they face”.

“We think the evidence and circumstances of this match would have justified European football being given a stronger signal on the need to tackle racism,” Fare added.

“Obtaining justice for racist acts is not easy in any setting, it is clear that football is no exception. We will be in touch with Uefa to explore options and maintain that Bulgaria and others in the same situation fundamentally reappraise how they deal with racism.”

The English Football Association, hardly surprisingly, took a more diplomatic stance.

“While we acknowledge UEFA’s ruling today, a huge challenge still exists around racism and discrimination in society,” it said, no doubt aware of the problems that still exist in English football too.

“Football has its part to play, and must do so, but it is for all to recognise the seriousness of the problem.

“While those responsible for such deplorable behaviour at home or abroad need to be held to account, we should not lose sight of the importance of education programmes in finding a long-term solution.

“That has to be the way forward to help address the root cause of such disgusting behaviour.”

England, meanwhile, have been fined €5,000 after their fans booed the Bulgarian national anthem before the game, while the hosts were fined €10,000 (£8,629) for the same offence by their supporters.

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