Beyond the Scoreboard: Racism Halts Euro Cup Qualifier


Despite being the world’s most popular sport, soccer is not devoid of racist behavior from its fans. (Courtesy of Flickr)

While it may not be the most popular sport here in the United States, there is no question that soccer is by far the most popular sport in the world. It has an estimated global following of 4 billion people. Soccer is one of the few sports where the primary areas of influence are spread throughout nearly every region of the world.

But even the most popular of sports can still have its flaws.

Take what ended up occuring during Monday’s Euro Cup qualifying match between England and Bulgaria at the Vasil Levski stadium. England would win the contest handily 6-0, but the actions of Bulgarian fans in the first half that to a stoppage in play… twice.

In the 21st minute, referee Ivan Bebek temporarily halted the match after complaints from English defender Tyrone Mings that racist chants were being directed at him. In the crowd, Bulgarian supporters were seen performing monkey chants and Nazi salutes not only towards Mings, but to two other black players on the England squad: midfielder Raheem Sterling and forward Marcus Rashford.

As is protocol when dealing with incidents like the one on Monday, Bebek relayed a message to the PA announcer to be heard throughout the stadium. In both English and Bulgarian, the message was simple: anymore racist chants and actions would result in the game being ended early.

Even with a formal announcement, the Bulgarian fans continued their disrespectful treatment of the three England players. Ultimtely, in the 41st minute, play would be stopped yet again when England manager Gareth Southgate engaged in a verbose discussion with the referees about the continued verbal abuse towards his players. Discussing the situation post-match, Southgate said, “Nobody should have to experience what our players did. We followed the protocol. We gave two messages: one, that our football did the talking and two, we stopped the game twice.”

Southgate also gave credit to the officiating crew for being in constant communication with the team throughout the first half. After the second stoppage, the referees gave Southgate and his side the opportunity to walk off the field and end the match immediately. But it was made abundantly clear that the England players were willing to finish the first half and continue with the remainder of the match.

There is a lot to be said about the composure shown by Mings, Rashford and Sterling in the face of blatant racism. Imagine how Mings must be feeling. Monday’s match was his international debut. It is supposed to be a positive and monumental moment for a soccer player when they finally get the opportunity to represent their country in international play. Instead, what should have been one of the best moments in his professional career became a nightmare just 41 minutes into regulation.

Rashford took time to give credit to Bulgarian captain Ivelin Popov, who was seen pleading with a section of the crowd at halftime to stop the racist chants moving forward at home games in Bulgaria. Rashford went on twitter to address the situation, saying, “Proud we rose above it to take the three points but this needs stamping out.”

Thankfully, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has begun opening disciplinary proceedings against Bulgaria. On Tuesday, the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU)was charged for racist behavior from their fans, prompting BFU president Borislav Mihaylov to resign from his position. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called the crowd’s actions “unacceptable for one of the most tolerant countries in the world.”

While the words of the prime minister come off as genuine, this is not the first time he has seen his country be disciplined for this type of behavior. Earlier this year, UEFA ordered the Bulgarian Football Union to partially close Levski stadium before England’s visit after its supporters were found guilty of racist behavior in matches earlier this year.

However, I’m troubled by the fact that most of the Bulgarian players and their coach, Krasimir Balakov, said they had not heard any abuse of the visiting team. More so, Balakov would go on to blame England fans for being disrespectful to the Bulgarian home crowd. Defending his stance, Balakov said, “During the second half, they used words against our fans which I find unacceptable.”

To coach Balakov: Of course, the England fans used words that were unacceptable in the second half. It is almost as if Balakov was wearing ear plugs for the entirety of the first half and was completely unaware of the fact the match was stopped not once, but twice. His inability to take accountability in the situation is shameful as a leader of a national team.

Moving forward, I am certain that Balakov will no longer have a coaching job after UEFA and the BFU conclude its investigation into this situation.

Racism should never be tolerated anywhere, much less at an international sporting event which is designed to bring fans of countries together for friendly competition. Bulgaria never stood a chance on the pitch against England. It is just a shame that the final score is not the main concern during a crucial point of Euro Cup qualifying.

Europe’s campaign aimed at eliminating racism in sports is headlined by the word “respect.” Some of the Bulgarian fans held up shirts with the UEFA logo and the text “No Respect” next to it. Unfortunately, they happen to be right. They have no respect. The game of soccer will not miss them when they are banned from future matches for life.