Last week Monday, a number of England internationals were subjected to racist abuse from Bulgaria supporters just hours after Bulgaria’s head coach Krasimir Balakov claimed England has a bigger racism issue than his own country. Nazi salutes and monkey chants from grown men, who were ironically attempting to cover their faces, caused the first half of the 2020 Euro qualifier to be stopped three times, before some of those fans were forced out of the stadium. Six minutes of added time. Six minutes for racism.
In the aftermath of the game and those supporters’ inexplicable behaviour, Bulgaria’s prime minister Boyko Borisov took to Twitter to rebuke what those England players, the likes of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Tyrone Mings, experienced in Sofia, saying, “I strongly condemn the conduct of some of the fans at the stadium #BULENG. It is unacceptable that Bulgaria which is one of the most tolerant states in the world and where people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds peacefully live together should be associated with racism.” He also called for the president of Bulgarian football, Borislav Mihaylov, to step down following the incidents, a move that earned Sterling’s praise on social media. Mihaylov did step down, as did manager Balakov and Bulgaria’s entire football union executive committee, having been charged with four offences: racist behaviour, the throwing of objects, disruption of the national anthem and replays on a giant screen.
While it’s great to see action being taken, and so quickly too, racism in football appears to be a disturbingly growing trend in stadiums across the world, one that makes our beautiful game hard to watch. Arrests were made last week Wednesday, after police in Bulgaria were believed to conduct a specialised operation to find and detain those who were seen displaying their disgusting acts of racism. While it may never seem like enough, something is being done, which hasn’t always been the case.
The punishment these men will face remains to be seen, though if FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s comments last week are anything to go by, stadium bans could be handed out to the guilty parties. “I call on all football governing bodies to join us and think together of new, stronger and more effective ways to eradicate racism in football. As a starting point, I suggest that all competition organisers enact regulations which envisage life bans from stadiums for those who are found guilty of racist behaviour at a football match. FIFA can then enforce such bans at a worldwide level,” he confidently stated. ACTION. BEING. TAKEN. Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA President, also declared war on racists. “UEFA is committed to doing everything it can to eliminate this disease from football. We cannot afford to be content with this. We must always strive to strengthen our resolve. More broadly, the football family - everyone from administrators to players, coaches and fans - needs to work with governments and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to wage war on the racists and to marginalise their abhorrent views to the fringes of society.”
But, moving forward, how do football’s authorities ensure these types of bigoted ‘fans’, who feel comfortable and proud expressing their regressive views in front of thousands, stay away from stadiums around the world? Unfortunately, football might not have the power to eradicate racism, but football can and should set a precedent. Perhaps lifetime bans are the only adequate punishment, on top of how these individuals are dealt with in court, of course.
One of my earliest memories of racism in football was in 2006 when then FC Barcelona forward Samuel Eto’o was targeted by Real Zaragoza supporters at the Romareda. I remember an angry Eto’o threatening to leave the field after continuous monkey chants from a small section in the crowd, who also threw bottles in his direction. Following a conversation with coach Frank Rijkaard and the match official, he agreed to play on, but no player should be persuaded to play under those conditions. Just a season earlier, after a match against the same team at the same stadium, Eto’o famously scored and celebrated by impersonating a monkey. He explained, “If they’re going to treat me like a monkey, I’m going to celebrate like a monkey.”
Sadly, there were plenty of these events before that, and there’ve been too many to count since. In January 2017, four Chelsea supporters were handed suspended prison sentences for pushing a black man off a Paris metro train in 2015, actions that were followed chants of “we’re racist, we’re racist and that’s the way we like it.” Last year, while he was still at Juventus, Moise Kean was racially abused away at Cagliari, where Romelu Lukaku also became a victim earlier this season. Serie A failed to act both times. In Kean’s case, he was blamed, and by his own teammate Leonardo Bonucci, for bringing it upon himself after celebrating his goal in front of Cagliari supporters, while in Lukaku’s, he was sent a message by Inter Milan ultras, yes, his own club’s fans, explaining that the monkey boos aimed at him were not, in fact, racist, but rather the home crowd’s way of attempting to throw him off his game. I’m not sure it gets more ridiculous than that.
We have to believe football’s international and continental governing bodies, in cooperation with its league across the world, will do more to obliterate hate from this wonderful game that has united so many people from so many different walks of life. Use your voice, share these incidents on social media when you see them - let’s make noise until football finds peace.