By Delyan Yanev, reporting from Sofia
This was a game marred by racism. It is a match that will not be remembered for the performance of either side, and is an example of politics and prejudices preceding sport.
In truth, the match was neither a spectacle nor a contest. These 90 minutes were like many other international games where it is a pure mismatch.
Prior to the game, the arena was set not as a football match by both associations, but with England manager Gareth Southgate focusing on racism, while the Bulgarian FA launched a vehement defence of itself to UEFA.
Before examining the lamentable and abhorrent behaviour on show in Sofia, it is worth offering some analysis of the fixture which was deservedly won by England.
Gareth Southgate abandoned the experimental 4-2-3-1 used against the Czechs and reverted back to England’s post-World Cup 4-3-3, with Harry Kane performing fantastically well as a focal point and false nine, while the movement of Rashford and Sterling provided endless issues for the five-man Bulgarian defence.
However, this is a victory which does not offer answers to the questions England will face in the European Championships next summer. Bulgaria’s press was uncoordinated and led only by individual players, while English midfielders and full-backs found themselves with more than five seconds to choose a pass outside Bulgaria’s eighteen-yard box.
The Bulgarians, rather than appearing like an international team, were less coordinated and able than most part-time outfits. The fans chanted “Resign” to all employees of the Bulgarian FA including the playing staff, with a goalkeeper who conceded six and was the home team’s chief playmaker the only one to escape with his reputation, well, faintly present.
Long gone are the days of England celebrating Letchkov’s heroics against the Germans in the 1994 World Cup. “This is the worst national team I have seen in 25 years” murmured the fan alongside me, he was not wrong. No superlatives can describe how embarrassing this night was, surely it could not be made more humiliating, but a group of supporters ensured that it would not only be more than just shameful, but also infamous.
Prior to the match, three Britons had been arrested by local police for threatening doctors in A&E, with one being reported dead on the morning of the match. England’s reputation for hooliganism was subsequently used by local media and associations to begin to distract from what was already suspected to become a horrific evening.
With over 5,000 seats deliberately closed due to prior UEFA charges, the benign atmosphere which summed up events on the field became completely toxic off it.
Walking towards the stadium, a Gendarmerie officer stopped us and growled “Who are you?! British?”. Having established that the pedestrians were Bulgarian, clear passage was provided.
Alongside this scene was the bar beside the stadium, now with only three patrons had drinks across all the tables. “The English bought us this round!” called a happy customer, the fans had been forced away so vigorously they were not even able to finish their drinks.
So, the mob approached the stadium, behind me a deliberately ironic conversation underlined more sinister undertones: “How many bananas did you bring to the game? Sterling needs them!” welcomed some giggles from people within the conversation. Having taken our seats, a spectator behind mused “how did our right back make the team? He’s even darker than Rashford.”
After Rashford opened the scoring, a scream from a singular fan of “baboon” came out. This was in the opposite end to where Ultra groups had arranged to salute like Nazis, and confusion rang around the sector we were sitting in as the UEFA warning was focused on a stand away from us.
The worst torrent came after the game was temporarily suspended, and Sterling ran through on goal and squared to Rashford to slot into an empty net just before half-time. This was flagged for offside. Now one man making monkey noises became a crowd.
This is perhaps the most concerning and worrying image of all. Sterling is correct to label the fans who were committing such abuse ‘idiots’, however it is a label that is not restricted to what was obvious and reported by the mainstream media.
Attention will inevitably be paid to the group who coordinated the racist actions in the stand behind the dug-outs, but certainly more worrying still is that racist individuals still lurk elsewhere and other spectators cannot speak out against them for fear of being harmed.
UEFA may strike against the Bulgarian FA, but the mob below them will not be stopped, and will continue to stage racist stunts and claim “oppression” from the European football authorities.
This question cannot simply be solved by silencing the crowd, though it is absolutely correct to do so, as no player or supporter deserves to suffer discrimination in any form, much less than what was seen on Monday night.
Should the abuse, and the metaphorical fire, disappear, the fuel that is the prejudice will reveal itself in another form. And however difficult, this prejudice must also be tackled alongside the abuse.
Until this form of re-education succeeds, this abhorrent night will not be the last.
Image courtesy of Dimitar Nikolov via Flickr and Creative Commons