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England end week of unprecedented turbulence on footballing, and moral, high after a monstrous evening in Sofia

We must start at the end. Whatever the failings on the pitch (in Prague, many, in Sofia, few), the quality of character of Gareth Southgate’s England is indisputable. The quality of character of Gareth Southgate is indisputable. The way both England players—of all backgrounds—and manager handled themselves in the face of an abominable barrage of abuse is a lesson in diplomacy and decency.

England end week of unprecedented turbulence on footballing, and moral, high after a monstrous evening in Sofia

The shameful events at the Vasil Levski National Stadium have been well-documented: the match stopped twice after England’s non-white players were subjected to Nazi salutes, racist taunts and chants by certain sections of the home crowd. After much discussion between referee, the team, manager, UEFA and FA officials, the players decided to continue. Local authorities seemed to isolate the culprits, in which there was a large ‘Ultra’ contingent, and drive them away.

England end week of unprecedented turbulence on footballing, and moral, high after a monstrous evening in Sofia

Though it appeared there were no arrests inside the stadium, a handful of those responsible were apprehended on Wednesday. It will be interesting to see how much further Bulgarian authorities go, but the forced resignation of the head of the Bulgarian football federation, Borislav Mikhailov, was at least a step in the right direction. The Bulgarian manager, Krasimir Balakov, has now resigned, but would he if, amongst the disgraceful goings-on around him in the stadium, Bulgaria had beaten England on Monday? It has the air of window-dressing for the cameras which UEFA must now scrutinize with a fine-tooth comb. Bulgaria have no chance of qualifying for Euro 2020, so a suspension in the Nations League, the next competition under UEFA control, must seriously be considered. Judging by UEFA’s past form, though, don’t bet on it.

An epidemic of hatred, bigotry and ignorance

While England’s diverse, multicultural footballers were showing their football artistry and intellect on the pitch, white Bulgarians in the stands were trying to get their ideas about racial superiority across by hooting like inbred primal beasts. You couldn’t find a better example of Blazing Saddles irony. Both sides were living and breathing advertisements for racial diversity and equality. 

This is the crux of the problem in Central and Eastern Europe: a fundamental lack of diversity. That will hopefully change, but today’s genuine culpability lies with the political and cultural establishment in these countries. There is either an arrogant unwillingness on the part of the leadership to acknowledge what is right in front of their eyes—an epidemic of hatred, bigotry and ignorance; or, worse, active encouragement, especially with far-right nationalism making a chilling comeback across the continent.

Either way, the result is enablement, whether tacit or not. 

“I didn’t notice anything.” 

England end week of unprecedented turbulence on footballing, and moral, high after a monstrous evening in Sofia

In the case of Monday night, the tone-deafness of the Bulgarian football authorities and media was hard to quantify. When FA Chief Greg Clarke took the unprecedented step of giving a post-match press conference to explain exactly what had occurred, Bulgarian journalists heckled. “Exaggeration!”, one cried out, “Come on!”, another, and another even shouting “Who are you?!” over and over to Clarke. 

Their behaviour continued as Gareth Southgate—in the most (unsurprisingly) dignified way—answered questions.

To compound the contempt, when it was the Bulgarian manager Krasimir Balakov’s turn in front of the press, he played it down: “I didn’t notice anything.” Well, of course he didn’t. He then repeated much of what he said leading up to the match—that in England there are far worse problems with racism than in Bulgaria. He neatly excluded that this might be because Bulgaria’s population is almost entirely white.

When the press conferences were over, the most vociferous of the Bulgarian journalists continued his protests to English journalists. A couple of them showed him footage of what his countrymen in the stands had been up to. Out came the “small minority” card and then a continued disappearance into the world of alternative facts.  

England end week of unprecedented turbulence on footballing, and moral, high after a monstrous evening in Sofia
England end week of unprecedented turbulence on footballing, and moral, high after a monstrous evening in Sofia

The indignation of the Bulgarian media and football federation does have some merit. To them, the English press is holier-than-thou; they are outraged by what they view as the hypocrisy of a country responsible historically for some of the worst fan behaviour. They see England fans in their streets and bars being aggressive and intimidating, and they feel that the English press and FA are consistently talking down to them. They are justified in believing that the English have no right to go around the world being football’s policeman. Their exasperation when they see some of the headlines in the tabloids, which they feel tars their entire nation with the same brush, is not unfounded—and to their point, let’s not forget the same tabloids, led by The Sun and Daily Mail, while rightfully shaming Bulgaria, are also whipping up xenophobia and intolerance in Britain almost every day. 

But this must not distract from the shameful events of Monday evening. Should the Bulgarian establishment and media continue to exist in what has been almost pathological denial, UEFA, FIFA, and indeed all sporting bodies around the world, must deny them the privilege of competition.

It’s not difficult to show them how appalling things are. There were two horrific observations to take away from Bulgaria which characterize just how grave a problem this is: the site of stewards removing their hi vis vests to join, aid and abet the section of the crowd abusing England’s players, and, literally across the street from the stadium in the picturesque Knyazheska Garden, a gate covered with the most shuddering white nationalist, neo-Nazi paraphernalia, including “Respect Racism” and “Thank You For Not Mixing” flyers and stickers, and a warning sign: “Nazi Zone”. 

A poetic, ruthless repudiation

On the pitch, the dilemma: whether to walk, or do what England did end up doing—as Gadsby’s England’s Adam Williams put it—annihilate Bulgaria. Perhaps the more principled approach would have been the former, but in this case the visceral satisfaction for players and fans must have been monumental. In particular, to see Raheem Sterling, who represents everything good about football at the moment, turn it up to 11 in a setting which represents everything bad, felt like a poetic, ruthless repudiation. 

Enormous credit must be given to the England fans. We have gone from the horrendous days of banana skins being thrown at Cyrille Regis to choruses in Sofia of “You racist bastards, you know what you are” to the tune of Sloop John B and, “Who put the ball in the racists’ net? Raheem f***ing Sterling”, to Skip to My Lou. Yes, there are still unsavoury chants, yes, national anthems are booed, but it would have been inconceivable not too long ago that England fans would one day sing songs excoriating racists. 

In fact, these days, were anyone in an England end to regress, he or she would be rounded upon and dealt with by England supporters almost immediately. 

England end week of unprecedented turbulence on footballing, and moral, high after a monstrous evening in Sofia
England end week of unprecedented turbulence on footballing, and moral, high after a monstrous evening in Sofia

Which made the connection between England fans and players at the end of the match that much more stirring. The players knew their fans had been doing everything to support, even protect, those victimised by the home crowd, and this was a moment of pure solidarity between them. Even though it was a wretched evening, it will also be remembered as a defining one for England fans in all the right ways. 

In football terms alone, England’s 6-0 victory was a resounding response after Friday’s fiasco in Prague. It is of course difficult to gauge much against such abject opposition, but the composure and quality England showed was impressive. The test against vastly inferior opposition is not whether, but how, emphatically you beat them—and England inflicted Bulgaria’s worst ever home defeat. There is no question England are a really good footballing side. A home victory against Montenegro should be a formality, so Kosovo away will provide the last meaningful test before Euro 2020. England will need to examine carefully what happens in Pristina to get some indication how this “really good” measures up. 

Alas—but rightly—the match itself will be forgotten long before the events of this monstrous Monday in Sofia are. The evening was a damining indictment of the country’s leadership and culture, and of those who are supposed to be the guardians of the game, but also an endorsement of the character and integrity of Southgate’s England. It must, therefore, be considered a milestone moment for football in both aspects, and in the same way the basis for future templates on how to confront and eradicate this grotesque blight on the beautiful game.