This is (and isn’t) England: 2019
Nothing quite unites this country like a foreigner being racist. The scenes beamed back from Sofia last night were so grotesque as to be almost cartoonish. The stickers with swastikas on them. The monkey noises. The balaclava helmets. It’s true to say that the end of Communism left Eastern Europe having to culturally catch up the West, but by the standards that we saw last night, in Bulgaria the needle seems to have got stuck for some people in about 1979. It was like watching the out-takes from a recently discovered director’s cut of ID: The European Years.
Nothing could have demeaned the entire dismal evening more than the way in which it was handled inside the stadium. In accordance with UEFA protocols, the first step was for the referee to request an announcement to be made in the stadium asking for the abuse to stop, warning that the match will be abandoned if it continues. When this came over the public address system in the stadium last night, it was tinny and feeble yet clearly hectoring, and was clearly met with howls of derision which, if anything, only further led to a deterioration in the atmosphere.
They reached the second stage shortly before half-time. Under the protocol, the players are entitled to leave the pitch for a period of time and for a further announcement to be made to the crowd. The second announcement was made, and it has been reported that, in amongst the melee England confirmed that they would rather see things through to half-time and make a decision over whether they wished to play the second half or not, whereupon a number of Bulgarian supporters started to leave the stadium. In the fourth minute of the stoppage-time caused by this train wreck of an evening, Raheem Sterling scored England’s fourth goal of the night.
The importance of the quality of the England performance last night is important, and on several levels. Inside football’s weird bubble, it has to be remembered that the team had looked extremely disjointed against the Czech Republic on Friday night, and that they needed to get back to winning ways as quickly as possible. Secondly, there is the matter of the way in which they carried themselves over the course of the evening. Getting their point across in the most persuasive way possible, in the face of the vilest abuse.
In a world in which fines and stadium bans are simply nods in the direction of enforcement, it feels most of the time as though it’s here with us to stay, whether we like it or not. If there is a “cure” for it, then that must surely rest within society in a broad sense rather than in anything that UEFA or the FA can do. It doesn’t feel as though society is particularly interested in taking on that sort of responsibility, so we have to continue to apply sticking plasters to the problem in the meantime. A ban here, a fine there. Within this artificial landscape, there’s only one way in which a team can really ram the racism straight back down the throats of those who offer it in the first place – by the team retaining its composure and getting out of there with all three points. In the face of such treatment it can feel unsatisfactory, but it feels at time as though this is the only language that football really, truly understands.
And some would definitely say that anyone from England casting aspersions elsewhere should look at our own long and ignoble history of turning up in city centres and smashing them to pieces for no other apparent reason than shits and giggles. It can hardly be said that there haven’t been racist incidents at England matches in the past. Having said that, however, England’s supporters in Sofia last night were superb, loud and righteous in their support for their own players. Perhaps some of those singing Raheem Sterling’s name were also singing it in 2016 for entirely different reasons. Perhaps that in itself is a sign of progress.
The two faces of England have been on display over the last few days or so, and they couldn’t be more conflicting. Whoever made the decision to stage an England match on a Friday night in Prague has an almost touching amount of faith in human nature. It’s been going on for as long as most of us can remember, and the trouble in Prague was, if anything, not as severe as had been anticipated in the days leading up to the match. Not, of course, that any of this excuses the boorish behaviour that accompanies England coming to town. That may – perhaps must – be a broader cultural issue in this country that needs tackling, one day.
Last night in Sofia, however, the England team made itself heard in the most emphatic way in which it could. But the truth of the matter is that the fight against racism isn’t a pissing competition between nations over whose is the most virtuous and whose has the greatest social problems. Perhaps the best that could come out of last night’s spectacle would be if UEFA were to finally come up with punishments actually worthy of the name rather than continuing with the charade that stadium closures and fines actually make any difference to the behaviour of these people. Such reform might well sweep up the behaviour of English supporters in cities like Amsterdam or Prague, but if that’s the case, it’s a price that we would also have to pay.
Last night, however, wasn’t about England’s problems. Over the last couple of days, we have witnessed what has looked very much like an attempt on the part of Bulgarian authorities to create false equivocations before the match, only to turn a blind eye to it until almost forced to look it square in the eye, offer a feeble response, and then act after the match as though there were two dancing this racist tango all evening. This morning, it has already been reported that the Bulgarian president Boyko Borissov has requested the resignation of the Bulgarian FA President Borislav Mihaylov following last night’s events. If only, we might reflect, UEFA and FIFA would act so decisively when this sort of behaviour rears its ugly, spittle-inflected head.
No-one believes that any one person or group can “solve” racism, but we do expect a degree of ownership when it is apparent. These situations cannot be allowed to continue. The punishment for this sort of behaviour has to become something that will actually sting, for once. The England team did what they could last night, but it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the players to lead the way on this. No more dancing around the subject can be tolerated. This match has to be the point at which the line is drawn, once and for all. How this happens, though, is just about anybody’s guess.