do not mention the war

Bulgarian Irriation

In Football on October 17, 2019 at 17:45

England have played Bulgaria and English players were the target of heavy racist abuse during the first half of the match. Some notes on football fans in Bulgaria, reactions and irritations.

UEFA’s Priorities

With England winning 6-0 against Bulgaria, the focus was almost exclusively on what has happened in the stands. The scenes were abhorent and must be condemned not just by England and the FA but also UEFA. Yet, this may turn out to be wishful thinking as UEFA seem to value their sponsors more than the players. The Euro 2012 is the prime example. Nicklas Bendtner was fined €100000 for showing off underwear with a rival betting partner than UEFA’s, while the Russian and Spanish associations were fined in combination about €50000. This makes it clear where the emphasis for UEFA lies. That is one side of the debate. UEFA must act but so must the Bulgarian FA. The head of the organisation has resigned in consequence of the incidents at the match.

Banal Racism

The video below by Joel Rockwood gives an insight into how hooligans in Bulgaria have a strong hold on their club. The club’s owner is on positive terms with them and it illustrates the problem of racism and xenphobia within Bulgarian society. It is important to note that not all Bulgarian citizens are accused of being outright racists but a significant section certainly has issues with people from other countries, Roma, homosexuals and anyone who does not fit their small stereotypical mindset. The video is a good demonstration that the problem is not isolated to football but affects society as a whole. The president and owner of CSKA is on personal terms with the hooligan firm “The Animals” and he praises them in the video.

The book by Michael Billig, “Banal Nationalism” is well known. He defines this term as the display of everyday actions that seem banal on the surface but have far deeper meanings and consequences. These actions are meant to reassure national belonging among people, a sort of tribalism for the nation. For the interviewees in the video, racism is just a normal thing; for them only Bulgarians are respectable people, even people from other cities of the country they have no respect for. Racism serves as a day-to-day assurcance of their own identity, expressed at the football ground and in other aspects of their lifes.

However, this is not limited to the fans but affects the players, too. The Bulgarian goalkeeper, Plamen Illiev, claimed not to have heard any monkey noises or Nazi chants, stating instead that “the English overreacted a bit“. To add insult to injury, Krasimir Balakov, the national coach replied to Jordan Henderson “this is normal”, again downplaying the incident and making him vulnerable to accusations of being a racist. Even though he later backpaddled, the damage was done. During the press conference he stated that at first these incidents need to be proven; he himself was focused on the match and therefore did not hear anything.

Banal racism seems to be part of daily life in Europe, not just in Bulgaria. This contains the exclusion of people on grounds of their colour, their origin, religion and sexuality. It was once described as banter, which is language used to tease someone in a witty or humourous manner. Humour however is often misunderstood. The behaviour of the fans and the reactions of player and coach cannot be misunderstood. It is racism and in the case of Balakov it is at least the acceptance of it.

Diverting Attention

There is another layer to this debate, however. Krasimir Balakov, once again, has pointed it out quite succintly in the tweet below.

England does have a problem with racism and it has become worse ever since the referendum on EU membership in June 2016. One of the prime examples is the phrase used by Theresa May to create “a hostile environment” for illegal migrants. It was the beginning of a spiral that saw Jo Cox murdered on the eve of the Brexit referendum and made racism and xenophobia popular again. What for a long time has been at the fringes of society has become mainstream and England or Britain is not alone in experiencing a wave of resurgent racism.

For a long time football players suffered from racist abuse. Recently, Raheem Sterling has stood up to it when he highlighted how the press, especially the yellow press, reported on footballers of colour and the ways they spend their money. He was widely applauded and rightly so.

“You have two young players starting out their careers – both play for the same team, both have done the right thing, which is buy a new house for their mothers who have put in a lot of time and love into helping them get where they are,” wrote Sterling. “But look at how the newspapers get their message across for the young black player and then for the young white player. I think this is unacceptable, both innocent, have not done a thing wrong but just by the way it has been worded.

Source: The Guardian

“The young black kid is looked at in a bad light. Which helps fuel racism an[d] aggressive behaviour. So for all the newspapers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all I have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity an[d] give all players an equal chance.”

Source: The Guardian

His remarks brought him much praise and once more highlighted the problem of racism in football and society as a whole. England fans have a reputation for racist behaviour; there are examples aplenty in the past. In the Guardian Barney Ronay reminds us that:

… before Prague we had Seville, and Amsterdam, and Dortmund. And before that we had France and the Euros …

Source: The Guardian

Then there was Sofia and everything changed. In a rare moment not the England fans were the centre of attention but the home fans. Admittedly, they were happy to be at the centre of the attention.

The match was interrupted twice in order to get the message across that Nazi salutes and monkey noises are not tolerated and should they continue, the match would be abandoned.

It is with some consternation to read this tweet above from Raheem Sterling, praising the England fans on the night. For once, England fans did not misbehave inside or outside the stadium but the focus is on the other set of fans. This does not turn England fans into angels over night. Did any England player ever walk off or towards the stands when their fans started “Ten German Bombers” when facing Germany?

The statement by Raheem Sterling highlights the problem: It is easier to point the finger at other and accuse them of racism than look closer to home. Despite him having done so in the recent past. He has responded well to negative press coverage about himself and other players, though in this instance his instincts have misled him. Of course, the situation in Sofia was not easy and being faced with Nazi salutes and racist chants is challenging. Having experienced abuse myself – though on a much smaller scale than a football stadium – I know how difficult it is to find an appropriate reaction, if not impossible. In his tweet Sterling praises the England fans for their behaviour yet forgets that some of these still have issues seeing coloured players in an England shirt. The situation created a togetherness, a bond so to say between players, coaching staff and the fans, that is best described as siege mentality. In other words it is a “them against us” situation with England conquering foreign countries.

The screline of 6-0 is a strong statement and should suffice. The fact that England did not walk off at any point during the game other than half-time adds a moral aspect to their sporting achievement. There were no more words needed.

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