This was a night of grimly unprecedented scenes in Sofia, which brought up so many present problems in the game and society, but may well prove a landmark for its future.
It was the first time that Uefa’s three-step protocol for dealing with racist abuse was enacted, after England players – specifically Tyrone Mings and Marcus Rashford – were subjected to disgusting monkey chants by the Bulgarian crowd. There may still be criticism for how that protocol was enacted, as a general sense of chaos added to the unpleasant atmosphere, but there should also be an acknowledgement of the sense of empowerment among the England players that has felt like it has been a long time coming in such situations.
Barkley and Sterling got two each in a 6-0 win but all of that – and the fact England are actually now a point from qualification for Euro 2020 – felt irrelevant next to the wider importance of the night.
This went way beyond a football match, in so many senses.
That the match was being played in a stadium partially closed for previous racist abuse was a pointed reminder of how deep this goes. So much for Bulgaria manager Krassimir Balakov’s claim that the country’s football culture does not have a problem with racism.
The game does.
The hope is this is the start of something different in tackling it.
The events that this game will really be remembered for began around the 27th minute. That was when an angry Mings signalled to teammates, after monkey chants had been heard when he and Rashford got on the ball. This was passed on to captain Kane, who notified referee Ivan Bebek.
Uefa delegate Danilo Filacchone had by this point already been animatedly talking into his walkie talkie from his pitchside hut.
It was then that a grim piece of history was made. It was the first time that Uefa’s three-step protocol was put into effect, with the public address system declaring that the referee would consider abandoning the match due to “racist behaviour”.
“This is an important stadium announcement,” began what was genuinely a historic announcement. ”Because of racist behaviour which is interfering with the game, the referee has indicated that he may have to suspend the match.
“Racism in football stadiums will not be tolerated. Please be in no doubt that the game will be suspended and may be abandoned if racist behaviour continues amongst spectators. Help everyone enjoy the game and say no to racism. Thank you.”
It didn’t have the desired effect, as events instead got more complicated.
The abuse continued, and the game was stopped again. Some FA officials privately expected step two to be enacted, with the players moved to the dressing room. It was then that Kane could be seen consulting with his teammates.
They pointedly stayed on the pitch, but – notably – other figures left the stadium. A group of hoodied home supporters entirely dressing in black and believed to be ‘Lauta Army’ Levski Sofia ultras were marched out, as riot police also gathered outside.
Inside, England fans were continuing their own chanting of “you racist bastards, you know what you are”. They were later warned to stay in their end for security reasons.
The situation hadn’t quite yet quelled, and it was at half-time we had the remarkable scene of Bulgarian captain Ivelin Popov going over to his own fans, having a clear argument with them about the seriousness of the situation.
That brought the welcome lull of the break, and – according to sources – fevered discussions among officials about what to do next.
So much was at that point unclear, other than the depressing grimness of this situation.
The Bulgarian players were themselves involved in a long discussion at half-time, which meant the England team were actually on the pitch on their own for a surprisingly extended period. They came out to the sound of boos from the home crowd.
There was a sense of unreality to the game at that point, as if everyone – and especially the Bulgarian team – was going through the motions.
England were 4-0 and just creating chances with ease, before Raheem Sterling added the fifth, and Kane the sixth.
It all seemed secondary.
The running order, for the record, was Rashford opening the scoring after seven minutes with a spectacular drought-ending goal that will be personally important to him, before Ross Barkley added two from close range after some brilliant football. The abuse and protocol had by then started, creating such a sombre context for Sterling to hit a fourth before half-time. He claimed his second and England’s fifth shortly after it, but these were then mere details.
Events had taken over. This was no longer about the football, but is so important to football.
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