When the idea about players walking off the pitch in the face of racial abuse was spoken about a few years ago, I was never a great fan.
I, more than most, understand how abhorrent overt racist abuse at football matches can be. But the problems I envisaged were ones around the interpretation of racist behaviour, and the integrity of the game itself.
Pardon me for being cynical, but there have already been two abandoned games when the teams facing abuse were losing, and I questioned whether they would have walked off had they been winning.
When a team does that, then it truly would be a real statement of support for the fight against racism in football. I wasn’t surprised to see another game where the team that was winning suffered racist abuse, but decided to play on so as “not to let the racists win”.
Why does football try to have it both ways?
Ahead of last night’s explosive England game we were told the players would walk off if they faced abuse. In reality, only the first two steps of Uefa’s three-step protocol were adhered to.
This was the first time that protocol has been enacted, and came after Tyrone Mings and Marcus Rashford were subjected to disgusting monkey chants by the Bulgarian crowd. As Mings let his anger show there was a sense of chaos in the stadium as the public address system declared the referee would consider abandoning the match due to “racist behaviour”.
It was, in its way, a historic moment. But it fell at the final hurdle.
Now, as I stated at the beginning, I’m not necessarily a fan of walking off the pitch at any time, but if it is decided that we are willing to do so, then we must have the courage of our convictions and simply DO IT!
So, in the second half, when we were 4-0 up, and there was continued racism towards England’s players, albeit less than in the first half, we should have seen the inevitable result of our zero-tolerance stance on racism, and the third step of that protocol SHOULD have been enforced.
We are used to the timidity of Uefa officials, and so it falls on the England players and staff to make the stand.
But we were winning 4-0, so we let our football do the talking. We scored a couple more. That was our answer to the monkey chants and Nazi salutes: take the three points, and leave the stunning moment that could redefine football’s relationship with racism for another team, another time.
We cannot claim to support the fight against racism, but for expediency’s sake pick and choose when to enforce it. If you really want to take it seriously, just like millions of Bame people up and down the country are forced to every day, then don’t insult us!
The ultimate lack of action left a job half-done. It meant that Bulgaria manager Krasimir Balakov could go on TV after the game and claim not have heard the chants, or seen the salutes. He even tried to suggest that England fans whistling during the Bulgarian national anthem was somehow equivalent (to the chanting he didn’t hear).
If England are going to walk off the field in the face of horrific racist abuse, it must NOT be determined by the scoreline. If we continue to do that, then we all end up losing.
John Barnes is a former footballer and manager who won 79 caps for England
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