It was Raheem Sterling who had summed it up best at a press conference in Prague last Thursday.
Asked if he feared this would be a trip to Eastern Europe marred by racism, Sterling suggested some countries still had discrimination engrained in their cultures. It didn’t sound like a warning at the time but maybe we should have taken it as such. Here on a dismal, sorry night in Sofia, we began to understand exactly what Sterling meant.
We arrived at this old, primitive stadium to find swastikas stuck to the back of seats. There were other posters inside and outside indicating that inter-racial relationships were not welcome. In the press box some of the locals wanted an argument before the game had even started. If we thought this was going to be a night purely about the football, we really had been desperately naïve.
England all but ensured their qualification for Euro 2020 with a comprehensive 6-0 victory against Bulgaria in Sofia
But the clash was marred by racist chanting from home fans which resulted in the referee halting play on two occasions
Two of UEFA’s protocols from their three-step procedure in the event of racist chanting were implemented by match officials
And so it is that this will not be an occasion remembered for the six goals scored by Gareth Southgate’s exemplary team. No, we will remember this for what happened in the 27th and 42nd minutes of the first half at the Vasil Levski Stadium.
They are the moments that will form grubby bookmarks in the history of England’s time on the international stage, the moments when Southgate and his players decided they had heard enough. That was when the racist noises detected first by Tyrone Mings and then by other players in red became too clear and offensive to ignore.
This, remember, was Mings’ debut for England. How desperately unpleasant that the Aston Villa defender’s first notable act was to inform a linesman he was being abused because he was black.
‘Have you heard that?’ Mings was seen to enquire of the official. That was a question that led to a stoppage a few minutes later and the first step of the UEFA protocol, an announcement over the tannoy that this game was in danger of being abandoned.
It’s quite possible that is what some of the home fans wanted. The informed speculation before the game was that things would be fine while Bulgaria were still in the game and less so when they were not.
Marcus Rashford opened the scoring for the Three Lions on seven minutes with a superb strike from the right flank
Bulgaria: Iliev, Pashov, Terziev, Hadzhiev, Zanev, Despodov, Popov, Sarmov (Kraev 46), Kostadinov, Wanderson (Malinov 76), Isa (G. Ivanov 68)
Unused substitutes: Lozev, H. Ivanov, Dimitrov, Slavchev, Mihaylov, Nedyalkov, Marcelinho, Goranov, Karagaren
England: Pickford, Trippier, Maguire, Mings, Chilwell, Henderson, Winks, Barkley (Mount 72), Sterling (Sancho 72), Kane, Rashford (Wilson 76)
Unused substitutes: Alexander-Arnold, Pope, Keane, Gomez, Rice, Tomori, Abraham, Henderson
Scorers: Rashford 7, Barkley 20, 32, Sterling 45+4, 68, Kane 85
So Bulgaria were two down by the time the abuse started and that was not a co-incidence. If the Bulgarians could not impact this game on the pitch – where their team were awful – then the second best thing would be to get the thing called off.
The day before the game, the Bulgarian supporters had been set the very worst example by their own manager. Another clear pointer to what lay ahead.
Despite the Bulgarian FA warning their English counterparts at a meeting last month that racist incidents at the game were ‘very possible’, coach Krasimir Balakov suggested the English had a bigger problem with discrimination than his country did.
With Balakov as a spokesperson, what hope did we ever have of this evening passing off without incident?
The Manchester United striker cleverly jinked inside and rifled a powerful effort beyond Bulgarian stopper Plamen Iliev
Rashford looked set to deliver into the penalty area but instead took aim and emphatically dispatched into the far corner
Ross Barkley tapped the England badge in celebration after rounding off a superb flowing move from the visitors to score
Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate watched on as his side surged into a two-goal lead in the qualifying clash in Sofia
HOW DISGRACEFUL SCENES UNFOLDED
UEFA’S three-step protocol gives the following guidance on how referees should act if racist abuse comes from the stands:
STEP 1: When a player approaches the referee to say there has been racist abuse from the stands the ref must stop the match and ask for an announcement demanding an end to the behaviour.
STEP 2: If the racism does not stop the referee can suspend the match and tell teams to go to the dressing room as another announcement is made over the public address system.
STEP 3: If the racist behaviour continues, the match will be abandoned.
- After 27 minutes last night, Step 1 of the protocol was put into practice when captain Harry Kane spoke to referee Ivan Bebek. An announcement was made over the speaker system to fans and the game resumed after around four minutes.
- This came shortly after England’s Tyrone Mings) asked a linesman ‘Did you hear that?’ over monkey chants from the stands and England boss Gareth Southgate spoke to the fourth official.
- Footage showed Bulgaria fans making Nazi salutes in the first half.
- In the 43rd minute the match was stopped again and England players including Jordan Henderson approached Bulgaria manager Krasimir Balakov.
- A lengthy discussion then took place with Southgate and the officials. Lots of Bulgaria fans appeared to leave the stadium.
- At half-time Bulgaria captain Ivelin Popov came over towards the tunnel to speak to home fans.
The only chance, on reflection, was for Bulgaria to stay competitive but they never looked good enough to do so. They are bottom of Group A for a reason and first half goals by Marcus Rashford, Sterling and two from Ross Barkley were enough to push the Bulgarian players to the brink of implosion.
As the Bulgarian supporters did their thing in the stands, their players reacted in the worst possible way, spoiling for confrontation. When the bones are picked from this night, it should be noted that it is not just the right-wing element of the Bulgaria support who carry this stain. They may have been the ones making the monkey noises and fascist salutes, but the Bulgarian players and management are culpable too. On the field, the greatest ill-discipline was shown by their captain and that was entirely in keeping with the theme of the occasion.
While Southgate spoke to the referee and the UEFA delegate during the second stoppage, England’s Jordan Henderson argued with Balakov and at this stage it felt very unlikely that we would see this game through to the end.
The atmosphere in the stands was only growing more febrile. Another intervention seemed almost inevitable and that would have been the worst outcome, a victory for the bigots.
Happily, we got through somehow. The only consolation we can take from this abysmal spectacle is that a football match was played and a result was recorded. Anything else would have been quite wrong.
Chelsea star Barkley recorded his second goal of the evening with a header after Harry Kane had picked out the midfielder
Barkley’s sixth goal for England was his sixth away from home and handed the Three Lions a comfortable advantage
The clash was temporarily halted for a second time after the third goal following audible racist chants from the home fans
The result was put further beyond doubt when Raheem Sterling tapped home at the end of another England counter
The Manchester City wideman added another for England on 68 minutes after sliding an unerring effort beyond Iliev
There was time for captain Harry Kane to slide home a finish inside the near post after clever footwork on the edge of the box
Much of the credit for that must go to Southgate and his players. They were ambassadors for their sport and country on a night when the provocation could not have been more extreme. As the hostility calmed in the second half, they scored two more goals through Sterling and Harry Kane. Such an emphatic result was the very best statement these players could make.
But what matters much more is what UEFA do now. This should be viewed as a landmark night by the governing body, a watershed. Fines and partial stadium closures do not work. We have known that for a long time and here was the proof.
What would work is expulsion from competition. Nobody likes to be thrown out of a party.
But will UEFA exhibit the same courage shown here by someone like Tyrone Mings? Will they have the fortitude, as he did, to do what is right? We will not hold our breath.