Paltry fines and spineless words helped create the poison in Sofia – The Guardian,

Paltry fines and spineless words helped create the poison in Sofia – The Guardian,

The taxi driver on the morning run to Sofia airport was lugubrious, middle-aged and wearing an England football shirt. What had he made of the racist abuse of England’s footballers by sections of theBulgariacrowd the night before. “These people,” he said, curtly, “are idiots.”

The taxi driver wondered aloud why the Sofia police did not prevent the black-clad cohort of Bulgaria ultras from entering the stadium, the same tight-knit group who would later (it seemed) offer Nazi-style salutes – as those who know them knew they would. Instead the police had escorted the ultras inside.

The taxi driver voiced a very curt opinion of Borislav Mihaylov, the bewigged Bulgarian FA president who had beenso offended on Thursdayby suggestions that what happened in Bulgaria’s national stadium might indeed happen in Bulgaria’s national stadium.

Finally the taxi driver said he had nevertheless loved watchingEngland because “they play football”. He was still lugubrious and unsmiling. After a deeply depressing night in Sofia he seemed, for 20 minutes or so, the most unexpectedly lovable taxi driver in the world.

It is a Venn diagram some in England have had difficulty following but the maths isn’t hard. Some of the crowd inside the Vasil Levski Stadium were racists. Not all Bulgarians are racists. And yes, before we clutch our pearls too tightly, the evidence suggests not all of the racists watchingEnglandthrash a wretched Bulgaria 6-0 were Bulgarian .

“Who put the ball in the racists’ net? Super Raheem Sterling, ”the England fans sang. It is instructive to take a look at England’s goalscorers. Sterling has been racially assaulted – literally kicked in the leg by a man saying racist things – outside the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. Ross Barkley, who has Nigerian heritage, has been described as “a gorilla” in a column in England’s most popular daily newspaper. Marcus Rashford, who scored the opener, was racially abused on English social media this season for missing a penalty.

It would require a degree of delusion to suggest this problem exists only elsewhere. But this is not England v Bulgaria: the racist-off. It’s not a zero sum game, a football match you have to try to “win”. It is acceptable to demand change if there are also racist people in the country where you live. Condemn the violent xenophobia in European city squares. Condemn also the displays of performative fascism from our fellow European citizens. There are, sad to say, losers on all sides.

Meanwhile the taxi driver in Sofia loved England because they played football. It felt like an apposite point. There are so many questions arising from the debacle of Monday night. The focus now will be on practical matters of punishment and administration. Uefa is historically culpable for these scenes. Paltry fines and spineless words brought us here, to a place where this hatred can now be expressed en masse at a televised Uefa event.

The average fine for an incident of racism in a stadium is around £ 45, 000. It’s cheaper to pay than to police it properly. At the end of which Uefa has given racists a platform, all the while preaching in nauseating terms about respect, unity and all the rest.

All of which leads directly to the more interesting question. Were England right to stay on the pitch? Was it the correct decision to play through the abuse of the second half?

There had been some vague talk before this game that England would defy Uefa’s three-step protocol. In the event they did but the other way. Rather than making a complaint that might have activated Step 2: The Walk-Off, they played through it, and did so with majestic composure.

It felt like entirely the right course of action. Gareth Southgate’s comments that Sterling had been annoyed to be substituted on a hat-trick were beautifully pointed. To the local cameraman who muttered “fuck off” as Southgate left his even-handed press conference, it was the perfect pre-emptive response.

The Uefa protocol is a way of formalizing a response to this problem. On the night it seemed like a mild absurdity, an attempt to manage an emotionally charged, utterly distinct situation, to dictate how the victim should respond in the moment.

How do you delineate this? One man’s isolated chant is another man’s line unacceptably crossed. And while they may control the branding of the event, Uefa really does not get to say what is and is not the correct emotional response to monkey chants or aggressively deployed fascist imagery.

It will surely have taken a toll on the abused players, something that may be worth bearing in mind over the next few weeks. But this felt like magnificent defiance. It may not always feel like that. No doubt there will be times when walking off seems right. But the point is the players must be free to decide for themselves, not bound to the creaky dictats of a paper tiger governing body.

In Sofia England stayed and were mercilessly good. The three-man midfield restored solidity, albeit against wretched opponents. Rashford’s goal was stunning, made by a pirouette that sent Georgi Pashov over the advertisement hoarding, out of the stadium, along the dual carriageway, down on to metro line 2 and the full five stops to the Sofia museum of arts, all the while thinking to himself, vaguely, that there was something he was supposed to be doing.

Barkley had a wonderful, driving game. Harry Kane was more a No 10 then No 9, but performed as England’s creative hub. And England will now progress to next year’s Uefa tournament, where the larger stage is likely to keep these problems from public view.

Uefa can address this now by suspending Bulgaria from its competitions, as it should, but quite clearly will not, in part for fear of the precedent this would set. But the problem will return. When it does, England will once again be free to walk off the pitch, or to stay as the players wish. In Sofia their response, so calm, so assertive, felt like the only note of cheer on a dismal, frightening night.

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