On Monday 14th October, England beat Bulgaria 6-0 in a UEFA Euro qualifying match, which was overshadowed by racism. Bulgaria fans shouted disgusting racial abuse at England’s black players during the match. Since the match, sixteen of the Bulgarian fans have been identified and face repercussions. These repercussions just aren’t enough to have an impact in preventing further racism, more needs to be done, but what?
I have been shocked not only by the racism, but the criticism given to the England team for not walking off the pitch as a protest against the abuse. John Barnes, a former England footballer has criticised the team’s actions. He said that since England said they would leave the pitch if they faced abuse in statements prior to the match they should have walked off. Barnes, along with other commentators, has remarked that this action would have led to a more memorable and productive stand against racism in sport, especially as they would’ve walked off when ahead in the match. One could argue that leaving the pitch would have sent a clear and powerful message to a timid UEFA and FIFA that protocol needs to be changed in dealing with this kind of prejudice in football.
Other people have supported the team such as another former footballer, Howard Gayle, who argues that if they walked off the pitch the racists win. By abandoning the game, the footballers are sacrificing what they love to do and surrendering a winning position which would arguably give the racists a sense of satisfaction. By continuing to play such a high standard of football, they sent a clear message to the abusers that they can’t affect the players.
Neither view in principle is wrong as I would argue that staying and winning the match sends just as clear a message of strength as does leaving the pitch. But I don’t think it is right to judge those players on the pitch that night and their decision. What we saw in a time when our parliament and country is divided is camaraderie and strength in our national team. The team did not walk off, but England’s black players knew that if they had wanted to, their team-mates would have followed in support. Instead two black players, Rashford and Sterling scored stellar goals and another, Mings, earned his first senior international cap. Since their win, football has seen a team walk off the pitch with Harringay Borough vs Yeovil being abandoned due to racism. Walking off is how these players wanted to handle the situation, neither stand trumps the other, both send their own message.
It is not the players that we should be criticising for their action it is the sporting bodies. UEFA’s three step protocol was highlighted as weak and unproductive on Monday. The first step is to make an announcement to the crowd asking for the abuse to stop. It is incredibly naïve to think that reasoning with bull-headed brutes is going to stop anything. There has been discussion of increased tracking of who is in which seat from the purchase of the ticket to the game to deter racists. Although we have CCTV now, many racists cover their faces and hide their identity and this kind of increased knowledge of who is sitting in what seat could bring a slight improvement. This approach is limited as people can move seats and many of these bigots don’t care if they are known, but a small step in the right direction is better than no step. On top of this, although arrests have been made, the punishments are not always harsh enough with fines and a limited number of match bans not preventing these intransigent idiots from offending again or deterring others of their kind from similar antics. Lifetime bans for these racists should be the first and only step taken. This behaviour should not be tolerated.
Football is not the only sport where this is an issue, rugby players, tennis players and all kinds of sports people of colour have had to face abuse while working hard at their job. Not only UEFA and FIFA, but all sporting boards need to be stricter and more vigilant. Racism is a societal issue that sadly may not go away for a very long time, so racism in sport probably cannot be eliminated fully in the near future, but it can definitely be reduced. This is not going to be down to the players alone. They can raise awareness and speak out in whatever way they wish to but the people at the top are the ones who must make the real change.