If you listened to Bulgarian coach Krasimir Balakov and some of his 1994 World Cup hero teammates, you’d think there wasn’t any racist abuse at their Euro 2020 qualifier with England on Monday night. However, there certainly was.
It was audible during the live TV broadcast of the match, it was heard by the England players on the pitch and it was even captured on camera as a group of racist fans dressed in black were shown making Nazi salutes and making monkey noises at England’s players.
Yet it seems Balakov would have us believe that, in a stadium already part-closed due to past instances of racist behavior inside the Vasil Levski stadium, he couldn’t hear any racism from the stands.
Perhaps he should be sent for a hearing test.
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However, it appears that Balakov is not alone. The current head coach was an integral part of the great Bulgarian side that reached the semi-finals of the 1994 World Cup in the United States, and some of his former teammates appear to have developed a similar case of selective hearing.
Balakov insisted after the match: “I have heard absolutely nothing,” but seemingly had no issue hearing chants from England fans that he described as “unacceptable,” while fellow 1994 teammate Boncho Genchev stated: “It’s not serious to say Bulgarian fans are racist.”
And even though his captain Ivelin Popov was seen remonstrating with a group of fans at halftime, Balakov suggested it was “probably because the fans were unhappy with the way the team was performing.”
Earlier in the week, Bulgaria’s 1994 goalkeeper and Bulgarian Football Union chief Borislav Mihaylov had criticized England players’ statement that they would walk off the pitch if they were subjected to abuse during the game, saying England were subjecting the Bulgarian fans to “unjust branding,” and spoke of his “extreme disappointment” at the players’ comments.
And another 1994 alum, Bulgarian Football Union vice-president Yordan Letchkov, said post-match: “It’s quite disappointing to focus on racism. It’s not serious to concentrate on that if there’s a qualifier like this and we’re playing against a team like England.”
It all smacks of denial, ignorance and a refusal to accept the seriousness of what anyone with ears and eyes could see and hear on Monday night. And, by doing so, those once-great players in Bulgarian history are in effect enabling the racists to continue the sort of actions we saw and heard on our television screens on Monday night.
Like it or not, there were racists in the stands in Sofia. They were present, they were prominent and they were vocal. Now the punishment should follow, and the statement delivered by UEFA needs to be every bit as prominent.
Of course, it’s absolutely essential to make clear that the presence of those people in the stands in no way means that Bulgarian football fans as a whole are racist. It’s also important to note that England still has a racism problem of its own, and England striker Raheem Sterling has been a vocal opponent of the abuse that has been dished out in grounds in his own country, as well as overseas.
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But this isn’t a petty political game of point-scoring between nations. Racism needs to be stamped out, wherever it shows its ugly face. Bulgaria had already been sanctioned for the behavior of an element of its fans. Now all eyes turn to UEFA to see what they will do next.
There would appear to be only two ways to guarantee there is no more racism from the stands in the next few Bulgarian international matches. UEFA has already imposed a partial stadium closure, but clearly that didn’t work. The next natural step is full stadium closure, with the next few home games to be played behind closed doors.
Then, after two or three home games played in empty stadiums, let the fans back in with a clear warning: If the racism returns, your country will be thrown out of the next UEFA competition.
Maybe then the men with selective hearing at the head of the game in Bulgaria might finally start to listen.
By Simon Head