In a disgraceful night of football, England thrashed Bulgaria 0-6 in Sofia amid ugly scenes of racist abuse.
The game was stopped twice in the first half due to racist abuse but wasn’t abandoned and England ran riot, scoring six for the first time since the 2018 World Cup. What did we learn?
1. The three step protocol is a band-aid on a broken leg
Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling were being singled out by Bulgarian fans for very loud booing. The plausible deniability of “it’s not monkey chants” falls flat when the only players targeted are black. Meanwhile Tyrone Mings, making his England debut, was receiving direct monkey chants and reported this to the officials and his coach.
That, right there, should have been the moment the game stopped. If UEFA was truly committed to stamping out racism that would be the protocol, but the law instead called for the referee to pause the game, speak to the captains and have a message read out over the tannoy that the game would be cancelled if racist chanting did not stop.
Unsurprisingly the crowd reacted viciously to this, almost inflamed. And the racist chanting didn’t stop. So just before half-time with the score 0-3, the game was stopped once again. This time for a long time as the teams congregated by the touchline. More announcements were made and a large swathe of Bulgarian fans seemed to leave the stadium.
These fans had been seen on video making Nazi salutes, holding up offensive signs, and even some were seen making the monkey chants. This massive element were not the sole origin of the racism, but they were certainly its more vocal proponent and they were ejected. The game then pottered through to half-time with Raheem Sterling adding a lovely fourth.
At half-time the Bulgarian captain Ivelin Popov went into the crowd to plead with them to stop the chanting, but as the second half continued the booing directed at England’s black players was still audible, monkey chants were still audible. Yet the mythic third step of the protocol, the only one that really matters – abandoning the game – was not enacted.
Obviously some will argue that the best possible “punishment” for Bulgaria was for them to have to play out the rest of the game knowing they were inferior and get absolutely belted by an England side that were playing at walking pace, but this is not about some sort of semantic notion of “fair,” this is racist abuse and has to be taken completely seriously.
Racism is wrong, if racism happens then the match should be abandoned. In this case England jumped through UEFA’s hoops and in the end they still had to play through an entire second half of perfectly audible racist abuse. According to Greg Clarke, chairman of the FA, the reason the officials did nothing in the second half was the protocols are there to deal with “massed examples of racist behaviour” whereas the racism in the second half was “isolated examples of racist behaviour.”
That is an absolute joke and UEFA and the match officials were lucky that this was a no contest and England thrashed Bulgaria playing in second gear. Had this been a tight and tense game with just a goal in it then the pressures would have been wholly different, England may not have felt so happy to play to an audience of racism and UEFA’s cowardly ducking of their own god damn protocols would be a much bigger problem.
Ultimately, all the three step protocol does is allow the offending nation to quickly hide their racists, as Bulgaria did when they ejected a whole mass of them during step two of the protocol. Yes it’s nice they were turfed out but that didn’t fix the problem nor was it as directly and blatantly a condemnation of racism as simply abandoning the match at the first sign of racist abuse. It, in fact, asks players of colour to play on through racist abuse so that UEFA never have to act with courage and conviction their PR campaigns have in spades.
Creating a hashtag or making an advert is easy, actually abandoning a game where racists have abused black players is hard. Well, nothing ever worth doing is easy, so UEFA need to step their game up because we can’t kick racism out of football as long as those in charge are sat with their feet up, self-satisfied that they greenlit a marketing campaign where famous footballers tell us that racism is bad.
We know racism is bad.
Do something about it.
2. Mings states his case
It’s not often you can make your international debut, force a key player out of position, endure horrific racist abuse from fans but still play so well and with so much assurance that no one would have ever believed you were doing more than having a kick-about down the park. Mings looked at home in an England shirt, with all the athleticism, technique and defensive instincts to make him a superb partner for Harry Maguire at the heart of defence. Obviously the likes of Joe Gomez, Fikayo Tomori and John Stones will state their cases in the months to come but right now the job of Harry Maguire’s partner has to go to Tyrone Mings.
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3. Rashford for England
The difference between Marcus Rashford playing for England and Marcus Rashford playing for Manchester United can be summed up in one word: structure. Well, maybe confidence. Alright alright, help. So that’s three words but the underlying issue is that questions over Rashford’s ability are wildly misplaced, he’s not the problem, United being a dumpster fire is. With proper players making good runs off the ball and with the ability to play off the left rather than playing up-top, Rashford can shine. His stunning strike to smash the game wide open early on was proof that when you play in a coherent team, you can shine to your fullest.
4. The Real Ross Barkley?
It’s incredibly hard to tell whether or not Ross Barkley is good because the level of his performances fluctuate wildly, but today we got a ferociously smart display of midfield goalscoring. Barkley is currently managed by Frank Lampard for Chelsea and if you squinted really hard you could have mistaken Barkley tonight for a really stacked Lampard. The timing of Barkley’s forward runs was sublime, as he twice picked the perfect moment to drive forward into space (something England midfielders often struggle with) and was rewarded with two nice and easy finishes. With Mason Mount breathing down his neck it’s important Barkley shows what he can offer and tonight he did that.
5. A team in transition
England are obviously a good team with the ball, two of their goals came at the end of long passing moves that were sped-up very quickly, Manchester City style, by a sharp exchange of passes in the final third. That was nice to see but given the level of opposition it’s hard to read too much into the efficacy of those attacks and if they will scale to face better teams (the consistent selection of Harry Winks to set the rhythm will be a big help) but what was promising was how well England played in transition.
The Three Lions cut Bulgaria to ribbons, especially in the second half, and the score was only kept down by some sloppy finishing and, to be fair, some great saves from Plamen Iliev in the Bulgaria goal. But the way England were constantly able to turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye and, through the incredible passing of Harry Kane, orchestrate some downright spectacular counter-attacking moves. England need to attack in both ways, for sure, but playing on the break is their bread and butter – so to see them pull that off so well in what had to be the most uncomfortable surroundings bodes well for the future.
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