Football’s battle with racism needs to be won at home as well as abroad following disgraceful scenes in Bulgaria

BEFORE ENGLAND secure exclusivity on the moral high ground following Monday’s vile events in Sofia, it is worth remembering this.

England's Raheem Sterling, right, celebrates after scoring his side's fourth goal during the Euro 2020 group A qualifying soccer match between Bulgaria and England, at the Vasil Levski national stadium, in Sofia (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
England's Raheem Sterling, right, celebrates after scoring his side's fourth goal during the Euro 2020 group A qualifying soccer match between Bulgaria and England, at the Vasil Levski national stadium, in Sofia (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

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Bulgaria v England – ‘Zero tolerance’ only option to drive racism out of footbal...

While Bulgaria’s issues with racism are undeniably grave and endemic and worthy of the highest possible censure from Uefa following the stomach-churning scenes at Vasil Levski National Stadium, everything in the English footballing garden is not a bed of roses either.

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Bulgaria fans show their feelings after the game was temporarily halted (Picture: AP)

It may have cleaned up its act to a fair degree regarding racism. But some of the old problems and distasteful elements of what came to be universally known as “The English disease” for many years still lurk below the surface.

Racism has not gone away on the home front, sadly.

In July, Chelsea issued a lifelong ban to a fan who they concluded had racially abused Raheem Sterling at Stamford Bridge and excluded five supporters for between one and two years over incidents at the same match in December 2018.

That same month, a Tottenham Hotspur ‘fan’ who threw a banana skin at the Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was handed a four-year football ban.

Bulgarian fans gesture during the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier between Bulgaria and England on October 14, 2019 in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Picture: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

In February, a West Ham fan allegedly shouted Islamaphobic abuse at Mohamed Salah, with the Liverpool striker also the target of chants by Chelsea fans describing him as a “bomber”.

Meanwhile, at the start of this season, Millwall were fined £10,000 and told to “implement an action plan” after it was ruled that some fans chanted racist language during an FA Cup tie against Everton in January.

In terms of the national team, progress has been made. Instances of anti-social, xenophobic and disrespectful behaviour are thankfully now rare among members of England Supporters Travel Club.

But the problem has not been eradicated and the sight of boorish supporters who shamefully drape themselves in the flag of St George and pollute the atmosphere in city centres and stadiums in European cities with insulting chants about ‘Ten German Bombers’, the IRA, the Pope and the Taliban and boo rival teams’ national anthems is still commonplace.

Witness the scenes in the Portuguese city of Guimaraes in the summer ahead of the Nations League game with the Netherlands when a cabal of tanked-up ‘Ingerland’ followers shouted obscenities and trashed a pleasant city square.

On the day of the game, the children of Guimaraes were handed an impromptu day off school and told to stay at home because of the presence of the England fans in their city.

What an embarrassment to this country and the right-minded supporters who stoically follow the national team.

Problems have also occurred in Dortmund and Amsterdam in the past few years. There were also 18 arrests among England fans for football-related disorder in Prague, where England played on Friday night.

Many genuine followers may distance themselves from these unsavoury elements, but the actions of the minority still remains a stain.

It helps to explain why, comparatively speaking, that so few black and ethnic minority football supporters still feel uncomfortable attending England away games.

It is to England’s shame, more especially given the high representation of BAME players who currently make up a fair-sized chunk of the current squad.

On Monday evening, Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings started for England, with Jadon Sancho and Callum Wilson coming off the bench. The unused substitutes included Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

And what of UEFA? Well, they can only claim credibility if they throw the book at Bulgaria after the despicable events of Monday by way of points deductions and tournament expulsions.

Anything else is paying lip-service to the issue.

Partial stadium bans and fines have limited impact. The monkey chants and Nazi salutes from Bulgarian ‘ultras’ constituted actions of the bully.

Bullies must be confronted. Not smacked on the wrist and told not to jolly well do it again.

Monday was a night when England’s players, management and fans emerged with credit.

Chants of ‘We know what you are, you racist b*******, we know what you are’ after home fans were warned over the stadium loudspeaker of the repercussions if their behaviour continued, spoke for a nation.

Being similarly vociferous and emphatic when our own ‘supporters’ spout out bile would represent the true mark of progress and understanding.