Anyone could have seen this coming. After England striker Tammy Abraham said the team would walk off the field in Sofia, Bulgaria if faced racist abuse from the crowd, and after manager Gareth Southgate wavered on that claim, saying the Three Lions would adhere to UEFA’s established anti-racism protocol, this was inevitable. During England’s 6–0 whomping of Bulgaria, the home fans unleashed a torrent of racist chants and gestures at the English side and gave that protocol its toughest test yet. It’s safe to say that it did not pass with flying colors.
But hey, maybe it wasn’t that bad! Just an isolated event from some fans who quickly shut up after UEFA put its protocol into action. Let’s take a look:
Ok, well, that’s just one photo, it’s not continued racism.
Well, was it confined to hand gestures at least?
Guess that is pretty bad, then.
The first half was plagued with offensive demonstrations from the Bulgarian fans, most notably with sustained Nazi salutes and monkey noises. Rather that unilaterally walk off the pitch at the first instance of racism as was the team’s threat, England instead gave UEFA’s rules a chance to manage the situation. The first step of the anti-racism protocol is for the referees to pause the game when made aware of racist abuse and for the in-stadium announcer to warn the fans to stop or else the match may be suspended. Which is what happened about a half an hour in:
But the protocol’s second step is where things broke down. If the loudspeaker announcement doesn’t stop the racist abuse, the referee is then supposed to stop the match and remove the players from the field until the chants abate. Rather than go that far, these refs only briefly paused the match a second time with the players remaining on the pitch, and then resumed the action even though the chants and gestures never stopped. After deviating from the protocol’s escalation at the second step, the referees were never going to then respond with the nuclear option of suspending the match entirely, and so the match finally went into halftime with two stoppages on account of racism but no end to the racist abuse itself.
After the match, England defender Tyrone Mings said the racist abuse did subside in the second half, and credited that to UEFA’s protocol. He also noted that he and his teammates discussed during halftime whether they wanted to continue playing at all, ultimately deciding to go out there for the second half to see if there had been any improvement:
Raheem Sterling, the most outspoken of England’s players, also responded to the match’s events in a series of tweets:
(Mihaylov, the president of the Bulgarian Football Union, did in fact resign after the game.)
On the other side, Bulgarian goalkeeper Plamen Iliev accused the English players of “overreact[ing],” and said Bulgaria’s supporters “behaved well” in his estimation, per the Guardian:
If I am honest, I believe they [the fans] behaved well today. There wasn’t any abuse [as far as I could hear] and I think they [the England players] overreacted a bit. The public was on a good level – I didn’t hear any bad language used towards their or our players.
Bulgarian manager Krasimir Balakov went further by completely denying the fans’ racism and instead blaming his team’s poor performance for the chants:
Bulgarian captain Ivelin Popov, to his credit, did try to help. At halftime, he went over to the stands and tried to plead with the fans to stop the abuse:
UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin also weighed in after the match. He defended UEFA’s approach by pointing to his organization’s record on being strict against racism, which was sort of an ironic thing to do right after a game where his organization’s method of being strict against racism did very little to combat racism:
UEFA’s sanctions are among the toughest in sport for clubs and associations whose supporters are racist at our matches. The minimum sanction is a partial closure of the stadium a move which costs the hosts at least hundreds of thousands in lost revenue and attaches a stigma to their supporters.
Some of the views expressed about Uefa’s approach to fighting racism have been a long way off the mark.
The issue here isn’t whether a match should be stopped due to Nazi salutes and monkey chants. The issue is that UEFA’s rules are inherently reactive and are at best useless at preventing fans in the stands from racially abusing the athletes on the field. Enduring 45 minutes of monkey noises and Nazi salutes so that, after a couple brief stoppages and one or two gently chiding loudspeaker announcements, you can play with slightly less prevalent Nazi salutes and monkey noises is a wildly insufficient solution to the problem.
The only way for UEFA’s present protocol to be even conceivably effective at combating and preventing racist abuse in the stands is if referees do what they’ve to this point never done and actually call off a match due to repeated abuse. England-Bulgaria was the perfect time to do so, and yet they didn’t. No UEFA or FIFA protocol or rule can solve the problem of racism, but the very least it could do is start to take it seriously.