This was one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary nights in the his­tory of the Eng­land team

Sofia qual­i­fier went from mon­key chants in the warm-up to post-match claims of ex­ag­ger­a­tion

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Football - Sam Wallace CHIEF FOOT­BALL WRITER

The ques­tion that the Eng­land play­ers were asked first in the aftermath of Mon­day night’s game at the Vasil Levski Na­tional Sta­dium in Sofia was the eas­i­est to an­swer: they first heard the racial abuse in the mo­ments af­ter they jogged out into the half-full ground for the warm-up.

The sta­dium is a 1950s Com­mu­nist-era build­ing: in the lobby, old shirts and a pic­ture of the leg­endary 1994 Bul­garia team, who went all the way to a World Cup semi-fi­nal, and then in­side, around the stands, the kind of fences pen­ning in spec­ta­tors long since dis­carded in English grounds. When the Eng­land play­ers ar­rived on Mon­day night, the Bul­gar­ian Foot­ball Union had laid out a red car­pet and ropes around the en­trance hall lead­ing into the main stand.

Bul­gar­ian foot­ball, the team them­selves, were al­ready on their knees. By Tues­day night, they had lost 10 games in suc­ces­sion. The boys of 1994, in their fifties now, run the show, although not very suc­cess­fully. Borislav Mikhailov, the goal­keeper from that team, most fa­mous for play­ing in a wig so dis­tinct it de­served its own squad num­ber, was the pres­i­dent; Krasimir Balakov, a bril­liant at­tack­ing mid­fielder from the 1994 team, the man­ager. Both had pinned all Euro 2020 hopes on win­ning their Na­tions League qual­i­fier. The qual­i­fiers had been sac­ri­ficed and per­for­mances had been dread­ful. Pa­tience was run­ning thin.

In the sta­dium as the teams pre­pared, one end was closed as part of Uefa’s pun­ish­ment for a ban­ner un­furled by fans in games against the Czech Repub­lic and Kosovo. Even now, there was a re­luc­tance to ac­cept the terms of the pun­ish­ment. The team press of­fi­cer re­peated every time the ban­ner was ref­er­enced that the po­lit­i­cal party which adorned it was not pro­hib­ited in law in Bul­garia. There was a strong sense that they have been un­fairly treated.

In the hour be­fore kick-off, it was clear that even be­yond the sec­tion of the sta­dium closed as part of the pun­ish­ment, it would not be full any­way. The Eng­land sup­port­ers were in a cor­ner at the end their team de­fended in the first half, the fam­i­lies and the friends of the play­ers were in the next sec­tion, ac­com­pa­nied by mem­bers of the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion. The run­ning track around the sta­dium con­trib­uted to the sense of empti­ness.

Those who were here when Liver­pool were elim­i­nated from the Euro­pean Cup by CSKA Sofia on a freez­ing night in March 1982, with snow piled up on the run­ning track, said it had changed lit­tle.

In the warm-up, Ty­rone Mings and Cal­lum Wil­son be­came aware of mon­key chants from a sec­tion of the home crowd. As agreed by the team at St Ge­orge’s Park a week ear­lier, they re­layed this to their man­ager, Gareth South­gate. The of­fi­cials were told.

The game kicked off and seven min­utes had been played when Mar­cus Rash­ford cut in from the left and struck a right-foot shot past the goal­keeper, Pla­men Iliev. As the play­ers cel­e­brated with Rash­ford in the cor­ner of the ground, they be­lieved they could hear it again. Pho­tog­ra­phers pitch­side had al­ready seen Jor­dan Hen­der­son shout­ing at a sec­tion of Bul­garia fans. Mings played a ball down the right side and then turned to the fourth of­fi­cial. “Hey?” he shouted. “Hear that?” ITV cam­eras picked up the mo­ment.

In the stands, the Eng­land fans were aware that some­thing was hap­pen­ing. They sang and pointed in the di­rec­tion of a group of Bul­gar­ian fans on the op­po­site side of the ground: “You racist b-------, you know what you are.”

Ross Barkley scored a sec­ond goal af­ter 20 min­utes from Ra­heem Ster­ling’s cross.

The abuse con­tin­ued and then, in the 27th minute, some­thing un­prece­dented hap­pened. Ivan Be­bek, the Croa­t­ian ref­eree, stopped the game and spoke to Harry Kane close to the dugouts. Of­fi­cials con­gre­gated on the touch­line and there was fur­ther dis­cus­sion. The Bul­gar­ian bench was an­i­mated and Kieran Trip­pier was in con­ver­sa­tion with Balakov. South­gate and the play­ers waited. In the 28th minute, a pub­lic ad­dress an­nouncer warned the crowd in Bul­gar­ian and then English that the match could be sus­pended or even aban­doned if the abuse con­tin­ued.

When the play stopped again in the 43rd minute, the score was 3-0, af­ter a sec­ond from Barkley. This time, there was more dis­cus­sion and the Eng­land play­ers were given the op­tion by the ref­eree to come off the pitch. At the other end, be­hind the Bul­gar­ian goal, a group of home fans dressed in black – hood­ies, scarves cov­er­ing their faces, caps – be­gan to leave. Their flag, taken with them, pro­claimed them as the “Lauta

South­gate had no ap­petite to lec­ture another na­tion on its faults

Army”, a group of far-right ul­tras as­so­ci­ated with the Loko­mo­tiv Plov­div club. It was a strange exit with no ob­vi­ous po­lice pres­ence ap­ply­ing pres­sure. There were six min­utes on the fourth of­fi­cial’s board: time added on for racism. Eng­land scored a fourth goal, Ster­ling this time, be­fore the whis­tle went again for half-time.

As the teams left the pitch, Ivelin Popov, the Bul­garia cap­tain who plays for Ros­tov in the Rus­sian top flight, spoke to Bul­gar­ian fans through the metal fences that sur­rounded the pitch. In the Eng­land dress­ing room, a dis­cus­sion en­sued be­tween South­gate and his play­ers. “They were all ab­so­lutely adamant that they wanted to keep play­ing at that mo­ment,” the Eng­land man­ager said. He recog­nised that there would be some who would say that the oc­ca­sion was big­ger than that, but the agree­ment over the past week in all meet­ings was that the play­ers had the fi­nal say. They de­cided that if the abuse con­tin­ued in the sec­ond half, they would come off. “The ref­eree had said the same,” South­gate said, “and we knew that if we came off, we prob­a­bly wouldn’t be com­ing back.”

In the sec­ond half, there were two more goals, from Ster­ling and Kane. It was a strange at­mos­phere. In the small, hot press room af­ter­wards, Greg Clarke, the FA chair­man, held a press con­fer­ence. “One of the most ap­palling nights I’ve seen in foot­ball,” he said. One Bul­gar­ian jour­nal­ist shouted: “Ex­ag­ger­a­tion!” as Clarke spoke. The lo­cal me­dia did not know who Clarke was – the ques­tions started be­fore he could in­tro­duce him­self. There was ten­sion among the Bul­gar­ian me­dia, who did not feel the prob­lem was as acute as the FA was de­scrib­ing it.

On Twit­ter, Ster­ling retweeted Balakov’s pre-match re­mark about there be­ing more racism in Eng­land than Bul­garia with the com­ment: “Mm­mmh … Not sure about this one chief.” By the morn­ing, it would be liked more than 302,000 times.

Af­ter Clarke came Balakov. He tried to be con­cil­ia­tory, but it did not help that he said he did not hear the abuse. He looked like a man caught in the pol­i­tics of it, and un­sure of the best way out. The Bul­gar­ian me­dia wanted to ask about the state of the team. The man who shouted “ex­ag­ger­a­tion” de­scribed 6-0 as “a ten­nis score, not a foot­ball score”.

As the play­ers spoke down­stairs, South­gate came in to de­scribe the night’s events in de­tail. He tried not to take the high ground too much, in­stead fo­cus­ing on the im­por­tance of sup­port­ing his play­ers and his black and mi­nor­ity staff and re­spect­ing their wishes. He had no ap­petite to lec­ture another na­tion on its faults – again, he said that his play­ers had ex­pe­ri­enced racism in the UK, too. Against a tide of ques­tions about racism, a Bul­gar­ian jour­nal­ist asked South­gate to com­pare the Bul­gar­ian team he played against in the 1990s with the cur­rent one. The Eng­land man­ager po­litely obliged.

By then, his team were get­ting on the coach to the air­port and the Eng­land party would leave Sofia in the early hours. South­gate said that, post-match, he found them philo­soph­i­cal about what had hap­pened. Ster­ling was an­noyed, South­gate said, be­cause he had been sub­sti­tuted be­fore he got a chance to com­plete his hat-trick.

The con­sen­sus was the events of the evening had been han­dled about as well as could be ex­pected. South­gate and his staff had planned for this, although when it hap­pened, the re­al­ity made for one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary nights in the his­tory of the Eng­land team.

Tar­geted: Ra­heem Ster­ling was one of the play­ers racially abused

25 min

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