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 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