When Manchester City played Porto in the 2011-12 Europa League, as is traditional the executives of the clubs met for lunch on the day of the game.
It was, by all accounts, a very convivial affair. Everyone got on well and departed for the fixture in the spirit of good luck and may the best team win. Manchester City were to return the compliment a week later for the second leg. Everyone was looking forward to it.
And then, at the match, an ugly sound. City figures in the boardroom back then did not have enough experience of European football to be sure of what they were hearing at first, but it seemed to occur every time Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure were on the ball.
England’s game in Bulgaria was stopped twice on Monday due to racist abuse from the stands
Supporters could be seen making offensive gestures and also made monkey chants in Sofia
Some checked their theories with journalists in the press box. Then, at the end of the match, Balotelli confirmed what had been suspected: he had been racially abused. Immediately the club complained to UEFA. That, in itself, was a struggle. UEFA’s representatives were not initially receptive. City persisted. The complaint became official. The best that can be said is that Porto did not take it well. There was no great feeling of kinship in Manchester a week later.
Porto appeared to blame City for causing them trouble. They suggested it was because they were fresh to this, as if older, more experienced clubs, knew the score. At the UEFA hearing, they insisted what had been heard was chants from both Porto and Manchester City fans in support of the players Hulk and Sergio Aguero; as if Balotelli would not know the difference between the familiar endorsement of a team-mate and a bad impression of an ape.
UEFA then added further insult to the original insults by fining Porto in the region of £16,000. Manchester City then received a £24,000 fine for an unrelated incident in which they were a minute late back onto the pitch, in the next round against Sporting Lisbon. It is one of the reasons fans of the club have such little time for the governing body.
It is also one of the reasons those who deny clear and obvious outbreaks of racism at European football matches continue to do so with impunity. The authorities have made it easy for them. They have underplayed racism’s consequences and its existence; they have treated it on many occasions as a peculiarly English obsession; they have shown little interest in addressing it, beyond self-promoting billboards and slogans.
England manager Gareth Southgate speaks to the referee during the ugly scenes on Monday
A Football Association official once detailed how difficult it was to protest on the night of the game, how hard and exasperating it often was to find a receptive official. Members of City’s administrative team still remember the eye rolling and tutting when questions were asked at the press conference in Porto. It was the same in Sofia on Monday, apparently. English troublemakers in the media were the problem, not Bulgarian racists in the stadium.
Thankfully, official attitudes at least appear to have changed. The three-step protocol demands that match officials and UEFA observers take racism seriously now. Yet denial is still in vogue. Bulgarian football was full of it, before the game, and after.
Pronouncements by officials and executives flew in the face of reason, the press conference took on a poisonous atmosphere full of sneers and suspicion. It was reported a Bulgarian cameraman told Gareth Southgate to f*** off, as he left the room. At the back, the country’s journalists laughed as if the abuse of English players was some concocted myth, some deflective over-reaction. Why? England had won 6-0. Why would they invent a tale to take away from that result?
There is an argument that even coasting to a comfortable victory, England’s players should have simply walked off in Sofia, that the embarrassment of being unable to complete a fixture is the only way UEFA will be motivated to take significant action.
The words of Bulgaria boss Krasimir Balakov in the aftermath of Monday’s game were shameful
Bottom line: black players should be free to react however they wish to racist abuse. But considering the England team kept its dignity, its head and ploughed on until the end, the next step is for UEFA to do such a noble stance justice. Let us hope that by doing everything bar walking off, by obeying protocols while showing the governing body how close they came to ending the match, severe action will be inspired.
Yet let us hope, too, that UEFA will take aim at the deniers. For denial is also a serious problem here. For too long, individuals, clubs, entire nations, have been allowed to get away with denying what can be plainly seen is true. Denial has turned Bulgaria into a rogue nation with regard to racism in sport. No matter what occurs, not matter what is seen, what is heard, the pain that is felt, they are allowed to deny, deny, deny.
Like the Italian ultras conflating a monkey chant with a catcall, like the Russian administrators refusing to comprehend the message in a banana thrown at a black man – and, yes, like those England fans who are always peacefully minding their own business when the police become motivated to draw their batons – the culture of denial creates the poisonous atmosphere around stadiums.
The words of Bulgarian coach Krasimir Balakov in the aftermath of the game in Sofia were quite shameful. He should be part of any charge levelled by UEFA once their investigation is complete. ‘I did not hear the chanting you are most probably referring to,’ Balakov said. ‘I also have to say the unacceptable behaviour was not only on behalf of the Bulgaria fans but also the England fans who were whistling and shouting during the Bulgaria national anthem and during the second half, when they used words against our fans which I find unacceptable.
Bulgaria are repeat offenders and were fined £40,000 the last time England played in Sofia
‘This has not happened to us before. The disciplinary measures by UEFA were not because of racist chanting but because of a banner from an organisation which is not forbidden by Bulgarian law. We have had this problem since England were going to come to Bulgaria. For three weeks I have heard anything else but football and I don’t think this is the proper manner to prepare and play. This really has never happened in our games up until now.’
And, more than denial, that is a straight-up lie. Far from never having this problem before, Bulgaria were fined £40,000 the last time England played in Sofia on September 2, 2011. On that occasion it was Ashley Young and Theo Walcott who were targeted. Bulgarian clubs have been punished for racist outrages in European competition; the national stadium was partially closed on Monday night because of offences in previous games with Kosovo and the Czech Republic.
Bulgaria are repeat offenders, and remain that way because UEFA shy away from the ultimate sanction – expulsion, and from the next tournament, not this one which is already long gone – but also because denial goes unchallenged.
FARE, an anti-racist group in European football, have described Bulgaria as having a massive problem with racism and Levski Sofia in particular as suffering significant neo-Nazi infiltration. England’s match was played at Levski’s ground.
Bulgarian FA president Borislav Mihaylov (left) has resigned following the unsavoury scenes
Yet in the days before, Bulgarian federation president Borislav Mihaylov was allowed to perpetuate the falsehood that Bulgarian football had zero problems, and zero tolerance of racism, certainly compared to English football. He may have to step down under government pressure in the aftermath of this debacle, yet where is UEFA in all this obfuscation? Where are they ever when legitimate concerns around racism are dismissed as trivial or conspiratorial?
In the years before the World Cup, the Russian federation rejected countless incidents this way. FARE said they recorded over 100 racist occurrences in Russia between 2012 and 2014 alone. Bananas were thrown at a number of players, including Roberto Carlos and Christopher Samba, and when Peter Odemwingie left Lokomotiv Moscow for the Premier League, fans displayed a banana drawn on a banner, with the words, ‘Thanks, West Brom’.
It was then explained by Alexei Sorokin that getting a banana was a term that meant failing an exam. Odemwingie had failed at Lokomotiv, he said. And who was Sorokin? The head of the Russian host bid for 2018. Denial, denial, denial: and officially sanctioned by the highest authority in the game, FIFA.
When Yaya Toure was abused against CSKA Moscow in 2013, nobody would listen to his claims
And, yes, these are individual opinions, however self-serving, and there is a freedom of speech issue. Yet why are comments that contribute to the perpetuation of racism in European football never mentioned when sanctions are meted out? Why do UEFA offer no comment, no rejection, no push back? We might as well ask why none of the sinister black hooded types in Sofia were arrested before they left the ground. It requires will on the part of those in charge, from the federation to the government that now wishes to affect distance from them.
When Yaya Toure suffered racist abuse playing for Manchester City against CSKA Moscow in 2013, a CSKA media spokesman announced: ‘Nothing special happened.’ Toure couldn’t get the referee to listen to his protests and City again found few takers in official ranks at first.
This was during UEFA’s Football Against Racism In Europe Action Week and Toure had a ridiculous little pennant on his sleeve to prove it. We would like to think we’ve moved on a little since then. We’d like to think we are serious about this subject now. So now we wait, to see.