Shameful, sickening, predictable. Once again, discriminatory abuse defaced an otherwise emphatic victory for England in a European Championship qualifier in Eastern Europe. Braces from Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling were sandwiched between goals from Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane, but racism’s grotesque presence rumbled in the backdrop to every slick England move.
If Friday was a sobering night for England, tonight should have been a full-blown knees-up. But rather than it being a palette cleanser, England leave Eastern Europe, once again, with the rotten taste of racism strong in their mouths. In the immortal words of Joe Quimby, you have to ask if these morons are getting dumber or just louder?
With the tragic death of an England fan just hours before kick-off and with vast swathes of the Vasil Levski Stadium closed as punishment for the home team’s supporters’ racist behaviour in previous qualifiers, it seemed inevitable that events on the pitch would be subsumed by the soul-sapping goings-on off it. Over the course of 90 minutes, two steps of UEFA’s three-step protocol for dealing with racist abuse were enacted – had the third been, the match could have been abandoned. It might have been too; around the hour mark Gareth Southgate conversed again with the fourth official, relaying the information that either he or his players had heard further abuse. Eventually, the decision was made not to suspend the game.
It’s easy to forget that, before this, England got off to an exquisite start. In the sixth minute, Marcus Rashford, coming into the side in favour of Jadon Sancho, danced past two men on the left-hand side, putting the second on the floor, before jinking into the box and lashing the ball past the Bulgarian goalkeeper. Lliev, the man between the sticks, should have done better but it was a superb goal nonetheless.
If the first goal was an exhibition in individualism, the second was a lesson in link-up play. Sterling received the ball on the edge of the opposition’s final third, exchanged passes with Harry Kane, and feathered the ball across goal to Ross Barkley who gratefully tapped the ball into an empty net.
Then came the first reports of racist abuse. The referee Ivan Bebek paused the match. The officials followed up with the public announcement outlined in UEFA’s protocol. The game got back underway.
As anticipated, England’s reaction was creditable. Harry Winks, drafted into the first-team in place of Declan Rice in the hopes that he might be a more creative influence than the West Ham midfielder, sprayed a 50-yard diagonal to Kieran Trippier who passed onto Kane on the edge of the area. England’s captain swung in a perfectly weighted cross which Ross Barkley nodded beyond Lliev for his second and England’s third.
With five minutes to go until half-time, the game was again brought to a halt. This time – in the face of a genuine threat of the match being abandoned – stewards ejected a large section of fans, some balaclava-clad, from the stadium. In added time at the end of the first period, Raheem Sterling – whose track-record of reacting exceptionally in the face of this kind of adversity is noteworthy – added a fourth, passing the ball into the net at the end of a free-flowing England counter-attack.
During the break, the Bulgarian captain Ivelin Popov pleaded with fans through the fence which separates pitch from stand at the Vasil Levski Stadium for some semblance of reason. The fence was a barrier both physically and metaphorically – sadly, it seems there is just no getting through to these people.
With the game approaching the 70-minute mark, Kane registered his third assist of the evening. His through-ball met Sterling’s perfectly timed run and England’s number 7 calmly dispatched his second.
For the remainder of the game, England didn’t so much lay siege to Bulgaria’s final third so much as occupy it. Despite conceding six, Lliev’s performance was largely commendable. He made a series of sharp saves to deny Harry Kane a goal, a run which came to an end in the 85th minutes as the Spurs centre-forward seized possession of the ball 30 yards from goal, nutmegged Terziev and tucked away at the keeper’s near post. Harry Kane has now scored in every Euro 2020 qualifier.
The match finished 0-6. There was visible solidarity between England fans and players at the final whistle. While our own nation’s record when it comes to racism is far from squeaky-clean, hearing English fans singing actively anti-racist songs feels like a significant moment.
“They’re smiling”: Gareth Southgate’s reaction in the post-match press conference when asked whether his players had been psychologically damaged by the abominable behaviour of the Bulgarian crowd. And they were. At the final whistle, England’s players were jubilant – a testament to their remarkable mindset, one which is immeasurably superior to those who would persecute them for the colour of their skin. The England manager went on to voice his opinion that the referee had been outstanding in incredibly testing circumstances. An incensed Bulgarian journalist did not agree, demanding “what are you
talking about, the game was so friendly?” – a response indicative of wider issues within the sport and society at large.
If we are to banish this cancer from football, it’s not just the knuckle-dragging racist in the stand that must be dealt with but also those who are, for some reason, furious at the suggestion that racism makes things difficult for people on the pitch. The time will come to examine this excellent England performance in more detail but for now there are more pressing issues at hand.
In the empty seats which Bulgaria fans would have occupied had it not been for their penalisation for previous racist behaviour were official UEFA banners which read ‘#EQUAL GAME – RESPECT’ – how long will it be before the governing body prioritises real action over token displays? Hopefully, this wretched night in Sofia will speed up the process—but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Bulgaria 0 – 6 England
Barkley (20’, 32’)
Sterling (45’+4, 69’)
Bulgaria 28% – England 72%
Bulgaria 4 – England 20
SHOTS ON TARGET
Bulgaria 2 – England
Bulgaria 2 – England 2
Bulgaria 6 – England 10