For as long as a ball has been kicked, the beautiful game has been pockmarked by the horror of racism. From ugly torrents of abuse on the terraces, to its more insidious current-day forms: from it seeping down the cracks of social media with racist trolls, to Raheem Sterling calling out the questionable reporting of black players. Worryingly, anti-discrimination organisation Kick It Out reports that racist abuse is on the up in English football.
As manager Gareth Southgate has pointed out, England has plenty of its own problems to deal with. But the Three Lions’s game in Bulgaria on Monday night could be a turning point. In the 26th-minute, as monkey chants and Nazi salutes rained down from the home crowd, Tyrone Mings asked the assistant referee: “Can you hear that?” It set in motion UEFA’s three-step protocol: warning the crowd, suspending play, then, finally, abandoning the match. It’s a plan that’s apparently been around since 2009. But it’s rarely – if ever, in fact – been enforced. It’s certainly a first for an England game.
Play was halted as a PA announcement urged the chanting to stop. Another stoppage came just before the end of the first-half – but England’s players insisted they wanted to play on. Then, a large number of Bulgarian fans who’d been behind much of the abuse, filed their way out of the stadium. At half-time, their captain went to confront home supporters.
It didn’t have to reach step three of UEFA’s under-used protocol. England played on and won 6 – 0. “I think we’ve made a major statement,” Southgate said after the game. “I don’t think a game of this magnitude has ever been stopped twice.”
Monday night wasn’t the first time England players have been racially abused. Monday night wasn’t even the first time that England players have been racially abused in Bulgaria – Ashley Cole, Ashley Young and Theo Walcott were subjected to monkey chants at the very same ground in 2011. The only punishment back then was a €40,000 fine for the Bulgarian Football Union. Meanwhile, it was only in March that England players were abused in Montenegro (they were later handed a €20,000 fine and one-game stadium ban.) It’s an example of the relatively paltry penalties meted out by UEFA over the years – likened by England left-back Danny Rose to the sum he spends on a night out.
This time, however, could be a watershed moment – football made a live intervention and confronted racism head-on. In the subsequent fallout, Bulgaria’s prime minister has called for the resignation of the president of the nation’s football union, and condemned the racism in Sofia. As Sterling made it four and five-nil, the away fans chanted: “Who put the ball in the racists’ net? Raheem Sterling.” It’s extremely rare that England fans look good. In fact, it was only days before that 18 of them were arrested as glass bottles were hurled at riot police in Prague, before the Three Lions played the Czech Republic.
On an otherwise horrible night, football stood firm against racism. And, with many abusers giving up and heading home, maybe there can be room for optimism – that from this dark low, progress can be made.
“We have a generation of players – not just black players – who won’t tolerate it anymore,” said ex-England striker Ian Wright on ITV. “This is a seminal moment.”