Commentary Editor Chris Lierly details last Monday’s incident in which fans chanted racial slurs loud enough to force referees to stop the game.
On Monday Oct. 14, Bulgaria and England played in a qualifying match for the Euro 2020 tournament, but the 6-0 England win will not be remembered for what happened on the field. Instead, anything written about the game will reference what the Bulgarian fans did off the field and the repercussions caused by those actions.
England Manager Gareth Southgate had expressed concerns the previous week that Bulgarian fans might direct racist chants at his players, citing Bulgaria’s 2011 fine by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) for doing exactly that. The president of Bulgaria’s soccer union, Borislav Mihaylov, called these concerns “offensive” and disregarded Southagate’s worries, but once the monkey chants and Nazi salutes began on Monday amongst some of the Bulgarian fans, it became apparent that the English manager had placed his fears well.
Since then, Bulgarian police have arrested six in connection with the event, and, after being pressured by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, Mihaylov has resigned as the head of Bulgarian soccer. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the actions “vile” and pressed UEFA to act swiftly in its response.
Referees had to pause the game twice because of the racist chants, but that didn’t stop Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling from each scoring two goals as Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane each netted one. Kane, England’s captain, said after the game that he was proud of the team’s unity despite “disgraceful circumstances.” Sterling and Rashford, the two most prolific black players on the squad, were the main targets of the abuse.
During the match, Bulgarian captain Ivelin Popov seemed to be pleading with the home fans to stop what they were doing, but not all members of the Bulgarian squad were so disapproving of their supporters. Plamen Iliev, the Bulgarian goalkeeper, claimed that the home fans “behaved well” and that the British players “overreacted a bit.”’
Despite a divided take from the Bulgarian squad and a steadfast support of English players behind Rashford and Sterling, these despicable actions are part of a worrying trend in European politics and soccer. In the last several years, Euopean parliaments have seen numerous conservative and far-right-wing governments take control through the use of racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Bulgaria, governed currently by a right-wing coalition that features multiple populist parties, is one of these countries.
Though Eastern European soccer fans have received their due share of blame and condemnation, racism in soccer is not an epidemic confined to countries in the former Warsaw Pact. In the current decade alone the English Football Association has had to fine and ban fans of multiple prominent teams including Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. Additionally, the Italian club Calgilari has now had repeated incidents where their fans have racially abused players on opposing teams.
None of this is to lessen what the Bulgarian fans did or to try and imply that British soccer has racism problems on the level of Italy because they don’t. However, Europe as a continent with a racism problem, and unlike America (another country grappling with its racism), the Europeans do not have the choice to keep politics out of their sports. Soccer has always been a means for Europeans to express their beliefs, but at a time when populist politics aer surging, that necessarily means more ultranationalism. The racism the entire world saw on display this week will not go away from a slap on the wrist by UEFA, it will have to instead be confronted at the ballot box.