“B******s,” was the blunt description for those responsible for the racist abuse in Sofia. There was only one topic of discussion, even though the meeting was for something else entirely. There wasn’t, however, only one possible punishment from Uefa. Sanctions as severe as expulsion did not materialise.
The Bulgarian Football Union has instead been fined €75,000 and ordered to play their next two home matches behind closed doors, with the second suspended – to widespread derision for lenience.
Kick It Out have declared themselves “disheartened, but not surprised” and said the European governing body “have missed an opportunity to send an uncompromising message on racism and discrimination”.
Piara Power – the executive director of the Fare [Football Against Racism in Europe] network – meanwhile said they are “disappointed” Bulgaria will not be expelled, and “will be in touch with Uefa to explore options”.
The last one will probably sting given that Uefa president Aleksander Čeferin made such play of working with Fare to develop the three-stage protocol when defending the federation after that Bulgaria game. He added in that statement that some of the criticism has been a “long way off the mark” because their “sanctions are among the toughest in sport”.
The effect of that three-stage protocol now does seem slightly lessened, even if the empowerment the England team felt in playing on should not now be dismissed. At the same time, the punishment for Bulgaria at the same time feels very lenient, which is precisely why Kick It Out have responded strongly.
“The current sanctions, however ‘tough’ Uefa think they may be, are clearly not working and leave victims with little faith in their ability to prevent abusive behaviour,” Kick It Out added. “We feel Uefa’s entire disciplinary process in response to racial discrimination should be overhauled, and urge them to explain the decision-making process behind their sanctions for incidents of discrimination.”
And this is where the fundamental challenge remains. It is still difficult to work out exactly the right response, that has the right impact, in a problem that goes way beyond football. That is emphasised by the following statistic: This is already the 16th time in 2019 that Uefa have had to issue disciplinary sanctions to national federations or clubs for the “racist behaviour” of fans, and that’s with two months and a lot of Uefa fixtures still to go.
Those 16 sanctions thereby cover federations and clubs from 11 different countries – 20% of Uefa’s member federations. Nor should it go unnoticed that nine of those countries come from behind the old Iron Curtain.
This all further illustrates what Paul Hayward wrote about in an exceptional column for The Daily Telegraph: that this “an expression of a Europe-wide phenomenon, an incredibly dangerous lurch back into ideas that thrived in the 1930s… it has all the makings of a defining generational struggle”.
It is the return of far-right nationalism that goes way beyond football, so visibly summed up by the sight of black-clad Bulgarian ultras making fascist salutes.
This is how you get to the dark quirk of a figure like Raheem Sterling unknowingly tweeting support to the Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov for his approach to this situation, even though he is a politician who has got into bed with the far right.
It is one of the reasons why this is Uefa’s strongest sanction of the year, yet also why some in the game have a certain sympathy for the federation in how you actually deal with this. Simultaneously, it’s why they are criticised for not taking it seriously enough and for not being the force they should. There lies the challenge.
One high-level Premier League club source maintains Uefa are “tearing their hair out about it” at every single meeting, and have consulted clubs like Juventus on how you deal with ultras. Another high-level Premier League source insists they “don’t care enough”. A view is they’re too invested in wanting to financially “grow” the game in these countries, and “back away from the confrontation needed”. The argument there is that it’s still 16 sanctions this year and no visible change, or confidence anything will change.
This does nevertheless articulate some of the complexities here. Uefa have to make a clear stand, but also want to have a positive impact in a problem that really goes way beyond anything they can do. Would expelling them – as is a fair argument – really change views? When would you bring them back, and how would they even illustrate the problem has been tackled? The argument there is that football would really just become a punishment, rather than a potential force for good. Would the right people even be punished?
As one source maintains: “Kicking Bulgaria out isn’t going to make those ultras address their behaviour or views. It’s actually probably what they want, as it increases their power, and shows their leverage in Bulgarian football.”
How those ultras actually got into the England game remains one of the big unanswered questions about that sorry night.
It led to the resignations of both national coach Krasimir Balakov and Bulgarian Football Union president Borislav Mikhailov, two previous USA 94 heroes now criticised for a damaging level of denial that only feeds the whole problem. There is already a sense the level of controversy and international criticism has provoked a proper response within the country.
Uefa were minded of this when they were considering the sanctions. The thinking behind those is that this is the second instance of racist behaviour at a home match in the last five years – the first instance was away to Czech Republic. A second instance normally carries a sanction of one match behind closed doors and a €50,000 fine, so they feel this represents a significant escalation, especially given the financial situation of the Bulgarian federation.
They are one of the continent’s less wealthy FAs, with an annual budget of €9m. Given that the gate money for their next match against Czech Republic is estimated to be around €150,000 – down from €400,000 for England – and there is also a €75,000 fine, they are likely losing 2.5% of their annual budget. These percentages would represent several million Euro for wealthier federations.
That – as well as the distinctive problems with the Ultras – shows that some of this is down to the uniqueness of the Bulgarian situation. The wider numbers, however, show that racist behaviour is anything but unique. And there is a wider problem.
If countries start to be repeatedly punished for racist behaviour of fans, why should players from other teams be subjected to that? It shouldn’t be made their problem. It shouldn’t mean players like Tyrone Mings have to run the risk of such abuse.
It is why there is a strong argument that, if they are not to be expelled, countries like Bulgaria should face an entire campaign with all of their games played away.
But then we go around again: at what point will they get to prove it’s not a problem? In what way will the sanctions serve to challenge more deep-seated views?
Round and round it goes, a growing problem, that has consumed the game rather than come from it. There lies the greater challenge.