The issue of racism in football flared up once again on Monday night, during England’s match against Bulgaria in Sofia. Jasmine Baba asks why UEFA has a long history of ineptitude and inaction when dealing with racism, and suggests a zero-tolerance path forward.
As it’s an international break this week, I was going to turn to the Women’s Super League and write a piece on the pint-sized starlet that is Danielle van de Donk.
Unfortunately, however, after what I can only describe as “unsavoury scenes” (note; understatement) in the Euros 2020 qualifier between Bulgaria and England, I couldn’t avoid this subject.
In September 2011, England travelled to Sofia to face Bulgaria for the Euro 2012 qualifiers. The Three Lions won comfortably — 3-0 in fact — but the night was marred by monkey chants aimed at Ashley Young, Theo Walcott, and Ashley Cole. The Bulgarian Football Union were fined €40,000.
Fast-forward to June 2019. Skipping past the racist behaviour of Levski Sofia fans (the team whose home is the same stadium where the Bulgarian national team usually play), which included the unfurling of a “Say Yes To Racism” banner after the anti-racism campaign was launched by UEFA — we get to Bulgaria’s game against the Czech Republic and Kosovo. They lost 2-1 against the former, and were yet again found guilty of racism. The “punishment”? That a section of 5,000 seats of their 46,340-capacity stadium would be closed off when England visit.
One of these things is not like the other
To put that into context: when Nicklas Bendtner flashed a branded gambling company’s underwear in a goal celebration at Euro 2012 — less than year after the first incident between Bulgaria and England — he was fined €100,000, more than double the amount than the BFU was charged.
In the same year, Porto were fined €20,000 after fans racially abused then-Manchester City players Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure in their Europa League match. City were fined 50% more for being late back onto the field in the same competition. Arsene Wenger was fined double that amount for improper conduct to a referee against AC Milan in a Champions League tie. You get the double-standards here.
But that’s not all. Days before these two would meet again, UEFA put in a “three-step” protocol for the game in the Vasil Levski National Stadium, should there be more racist chants. So, UEFA move from saying “no tolerance to racism” to “you’re allowed to get away with three acts of it before we might call off the game”. Paired with Bulgarian coach Krasimir Balakov claiming racism is a worse problem in England than in Bulgaria, you may not be surprised to hear that waves of Bulgarian fans participated in monkey chants and Nazi salutes during Monday’s match.
Racism in football is generally reflective of society, and unfortunately it’s true: we still live in a racist society. Balakov isn’t exactly wrong: the past month has been filled with a lack of understanding around racism in the UK. Take Pep Guardiola defending Bernardo Silva’s racist caricature comparison of Benjamin Mendy — a “private” joke just posted publicly on social media — with no empathy or grasping of why that might be racist. On top of that, BME players in the UK continue to be subject to racist chants and abuse.
But we haven’t got to the stage where we’re being fined regularly for Nazi salutes or have stadiums partly closed due to a recurrence of racist rhetoric. Sure the job isn’t over, and we can only cringe at certain news outlets who regularly encourage discriminatory behaviour, but who are condemning Bulgaria now.
UEFA have beat around the bush for far too long now. If there was ever a time for action, this is it. But after their unsuccessful application of a bad idea, I’m not holding my breath.
Automatic forfeits if a referee or assistant sees or hears racist chanting from number of fans should be implemented. Recurrence of offences should see countries kicked out of competitions.
This isn’t 1939. I should not have to see groups of people perform the Nazi salute at a football match; nor should players of an ethnic minority play in those conditions. Victory in games with heightened tensions is not a win against racism.
It’s about time the footballing world takes responsibility for the behaviour it creates and perpetuates.
Follow Jasmine on Twitter @_BabsJ