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Men's Football England missed an opportunity to take a real stand against racism

YOU know there’s a problem when in the build-up to a game, players are asked what they would do if they are racially abused by opposing fans.

That was one of, if not the, main topic of discussion before England played Bulgaria on Monday night in Sofia.

Not that the Three Lions were coming off the back of a defeat, not that some idiotic fans were causing problems, again.

The big question was how are England going to react to being racially abused when they play Bulgaria. 

I received a message last Wednesday asking if I wanted to go on radio to discuss Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham’s comments, when he said he would leave the pitch if he was racially abused.

This was nearly a week before it happened, yet the writing was on the wall — black English players were going to be subjected to racist abuse come Monday.

Before a ball was kicked, Aston Villa defender Tyrone Mings, who was making his senior debut, said he heard monkey chants, which continued for the rest of the evening.

In the 28th minute, an announcement was made warning fans that any further racist taunts could result in the match being abandoned, while there was another pause before half-time.

This was part of Uefa’s three-step protocol which consists of stopping the match and instructing “the stadium authorities to read out an announcement, calling upon the spectators to stop the discriminatory behaviour.”

Secondly: “If this announcement does not have the desired effect, make another announcement, suspend the match and send the players to their dressing rooms for a specific period.”

And finally, step three: “After consultation, abandon the match if the discriminatory behaviour still does not cease or breaks out again.” 

No player walked off and England ended up winning the match 6-0.

But while the scoreline looks great, the England players had the chance to be pioneers, to take a real stand against racism and leave the field in protest.

It was discussed before the game and, while Mings said “everyone was happy to continue, everyone was happy to see if things improved in the second half and I think it was important that we allowed the correct protocol to be followed and things were better in the second half,” there’s still a feeling that this was a missed opportunity.

It takes huge mental strength to continue playing in that environment but it could be argued that it takes even more to leave.

A fan called up talkSPORT echoing these thoughts, saying he was “sick and tired” of hearing black players say they will walk off the field but then not do it.

He used blacklisted NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Rosa Parks as examples of black people who took action when faced with adversity and in the case of Kaepernick, he is still facing the consequences of his actions.

This isn’t the first time England players have been racially abused, not even the first time this year.

But there’s only so many times they can do their talking off the pitch, after they have been abused, in the build-up to matches, in powerful interviews with the British media.

Imagine if, when the first monkey chants were heard on Monday night, captain Harry Kane walked over to the referee and said that he was taking his players off the pitch.

England’s national football team, walking off in protest against the racist abuse received — that would have been a powerful message that would have echoed around the world for decades.

It would have forced Uefa into action. They could dock points off England for not completing the game, for not allowing their three-stage racism protocol to come into effect.

And the backlash would have been intense, England being punished for taking a stand against racism, something Uefa claim they are doing.

But their stand isn’t working and didn’t work last night.

A message must be sent that supporters cannot get away with racist abuse.

The fact that the stadium was partially closed due to prior offences, means the punishment and message clearly weren’t taken seriously by Bulgarian fans — or some of the players and Bulgarian media.

Goalkeeper Plamen Iliev said after the match: “If I am honest, I believe they [the fans] behaved well today.

“There wasn’t any abuse [as far as I could hear] and I think they [the England players] overreacted a bit. 

“The public was on a good level — I didn’t hear any bad language used towards their or our players.”

That he said this with a straight face is enough proof that he didn’t take the situation seriously and if he sees monkey chants and nazi salutes as fans behaving well, then he needs to be educated immediately.

A Sky Sports reporter tweeted that Gareth Southgate’s press conference was interrupted by a Bulgarian journalist who was “convinced racism at the game was not as bad as we witnessed” and that a “Bulgarian cameraman next to me tells Southgate to fuck off at the end.”

Bulgarian manager Krasimir Balakov tried to claim after that he didn’t hear any racist abuse.

I say ‘try to claim.’ He clearly did hear it, and had the audacity to point the finger at England fans for whistling and saying things about the Bulgarian team in the second half.

No-one is saying England fans are angels — they aren’t.

England are still combatting their own hooligan problem and Kick It Out are releasing weekly statements about racism in the English game.

But this isn’t, and wasn’t, about England — it’s about Bulgaria. And to a lesser extent Uefa and Fifa.

Because surely now, they have to kick Bulgaria out of not only the 2020 European Championship qualifying but 2022 World Cup and the 2024 Euros.

Not everyone involved, or associated, with Bulgarian football is turning a blind eye to to the horrible scenes in Sofia.

Captain Ivelin Popov spoke to the Bulgarian fans at half-time, asking them to stop the racist abuse — which can’t have been easy.

But Balakov turned around in his post-match press conference and said that Popov wouldn’t have done that and must have gone over to apologise to them for the first-half performance.

Bulgarian Sports Minister Krasen Kralev said that “the prime minister has ordered me from today to suspend any relations with the BFU [Bulgarian Football Union], including financial ones, until the resignation of Borislav Mihaylov.”

Mihaylov did resign yesterday.

But let’s not be naive, Bulgaria won’t take any punishment lightly. There will be fingers pointed at the travelling England support, at other countries who have racism problems.

But given the reaction from some of these people who have a voice within Bulgarian football, surely their time is up?

For there to be significant and long-lasting change, Uefa’s three-step racism protocol must change immediately.

Why does racism need three chances before something is done?

No game is going to get to the third stage, and in England’s game, they missed parts of the second stage.

The people in charge need to take the decision out of the players’ hands and if a complaint is made during a game — and in a lot of these cases can be heard by anyone with ears — then the match must be abandoned immediately.

Eni Aluko put it best on Twitter, when she tweeted: “Concussion protocols, anti-corruption, anti-doping, match fixing, VAR, FFP… None of them are player/coach led decisions. None have 3 strikes.

“Why is the decision to endure racism in an International game still falling on players/coach? Why is racism given 3 chances?

“As long as there are 3 step protocols, that never seem to reach step 3 and players are given all the responsibility to manage abuse against them, @UEFA dont need to improve sanctioning. Convenient delay tactic.

“Statement was definitely made yesterday but it was just that, a statement. Change will have to happen if players en-mass walk off the pitch. Until then we’re going round in circles.”

And what can we as British media, law-makers and fans do to eradicate racism from football?

Firstly, stop saying “alleged racism” when it’s so blatantly obvious.

Call it out for what it is.

Empower those who have been abused, get behind them and offer your support — it makes a difference when people know they aren’t alone and have the backing of society when they come forward.

And let the punishment fit the crime.

Tournament expulsions. Point deductions. Lifetime bans, for fans and players who are caught racially abusing anyone.

And I used the word caught and not found guilty for a reason.

Because we are seeing people being found not guilty of racially abusing someone, even when there is clear evidence.

If you are caught on camera doing anything racist, sexist, homophobic then your time as a travelling fan or active player is over — enough has to be enough.

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