England may have thumped Bulgaria 6-0 in their Euro 2020 qualifier on Tuesday night, but it was the racist abuse directed at England’s black players, and scrutiny over Uefa’s protocol for tackling racism on the pitch, that dominated the headlines the morning after.
After around 25 minutes, England defender Tyrone Mings – who had a fantastic debut, by the way – alerted the assistant referee to some racist abuse coming from Bulgarian supporters. Step One of Uefa’s protocol at this point is to stop the match and make an announcement asking the spectators to stop being racist.
Now, while I appreciate the sentiment, I can’t be the only person who thinks that politely asking racist thugs if perhaps they might consider not being racist, you know, if it’s not too much trouble, is something of a flawed approach. As someone who has suffered racist abuse in my life, I can confirm that asking racists to stop it tends to fall on deaf ears.
On to Step Two then… or rather not. As the racism in the stadium continued (obviously), the match was halted again. Uefa’s guidelines dictate the match should be stopped at this point, players should be sent to the dressing room, and asked whether or not they want to continue. With only a couple of minutes left until half-time, England’s players apparently agreed not to have Step Two enforced.
During half-time, ITV played footage of the Bulgarian fans and Twitter exploded with expressions of shock and disgust at the Nazi salutes and monkey chants being made towards the England players. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that racism in football is being talked about like this – it’s about damn time – but if you’re only just coming to realise that racism exists and only just noticing the things that black players are having to put up with, then honestly, where have you been? From bananas being thrown at Cyrille Regis in the 70s, to the media’s continued hate campaign against Raheem Sterling, black footballers have had to, and continue to, endure racism in their workplace in a way that would just not be tolerated anywhere else.
For too long black players have been told to ‘show ‘em on the pitch’ or ‘just let your football do the talking’, or some other trite nonsense – now we’re starting to see a situation where a team has the option of saying ‘nope, we’re not putting up with that’.
And that’s the important thing here. It’s a team decision. With England at least, it’s no longer the responsibility of the individual to deal with the stress of having to perform at a high level while enduring racist abuse, and it’s wonderful to see a team coming together like that to say that they won’t tolerate racism.
There’s an argument to say that to make a real stand, England should have walked off immediately. Personally, I respect England’s decision to play out the match and think it’s great they even have the option of legitimately deciding that they’re not putting up with racism and walking off the pitch. Manager Gareth Southgate said on Tuesday morning that the team discussed it at half-time, were in agreement that they would walk off if they heard anything further, and were fully prepared to do so. They say they didn’t hear anything more, and went on to finish the game.
But the question arises whether or not it should be left to the players to decide. I guess I feel that the question shouldn’t really be whether players are happy to endure racist abuse or not. Again, imagine in any other job hearing: ‘Yeah, so I know that racists are screaming at you while you’re trying to work, but are you okay to keep working?’
If Uefa were really serious about tackling racism, what’s stopping them from making the decision? Why can’t match officials be the ones to say ‘we’re not playing under these conditions’? What they’re essentially doing with their Three Step Protocol is acknowledging that racism is a problem, but still putting the onus on the players to deal with it. I’m unsure as to whether that’s the best approach, but this doesn’t exactly scream “zero tolerance!”
The racism-scented dust is yet to settle and we don’t know at this point what the sanctions will be for Bulgaria, but when it comes to dealing with racism, there’s not great track record here. When Sterling was the target of racist abuse during a 5-1 win in Montenegro earlier this year, the country was fined €20,000 and had to play two games behind closed doors. If Uefa are serious about dealing with the problem of racism in football, they need to think harder about how they’ll handle this situation.
But perhaps while England fans are rightly horrified and disgusted by the scenes in Bulgaria last night, this is a perfect opportunity to shine a light on the racist abuse that black players routinely have to face right here in their own country.
Dr Peter Olusoga is a senior lecturer in psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, and active sport psychology consultant