Given the history and given the buildup, in which claim and counter-claim had raised the temperature around this Euro 2020 qualifier, it was easy to fear the worst. But when it did happen, when the monkey chants towards Tyrone Mings started from a section of the Bulgaria support, there could only be shock and revulsion.
© PA Raheem Sterling (left) celebrates scoring his second and England’s fifth goal with Harry Kane.
Mings, who ought to have revelled in the thrill of wearing the England shirt for the first time, was not the only black player to be targeted. Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford also heard the disgusting noises, meaning England’s victory was quickly relegated to a footnote.
The idea for Gareth Southgate and his players was to show their capacity to bounce back from Friday’s 2-1 defeat by the Czech Republic in Prague and they did that in style. But this was an altogether different kind of psychological test in front of a crowd in which Nazi salutes were performed and the 50-strong group of black-clad ultras who were behind some of the worst abuses were ejected. The mindless minority brought shame on Bulgaria.
It was deeply distressing simply to watch, to feel the skin crawl whenever one of England’s black players had the ball in anticipation of what might happen and so goodness knows how Mings, Sterling and Rashford were able to continue. After the chants had started to ring out with greater clarity, Sterling gilded the scoreline with two smart finishes. “Who put the ball in the racists’ net? Raheem Sterling,” chanted the England support.
Southgate had made it plain he and his players would follow Uefa’s three-step protocol and so they did. First, there was an announcement over the PA system to urge the chants to stop and, when they did not, the referee, Ivan Bebek, halted the game just before the interval and asked Southgate whether he wanted to take his players off to the dressing room.
He said he wanted to get to half-time, talk to the players and take stock. There was the option for England not to return but, according to the Football Association chairman, Greg Clarke, the players wanted to resume; they did not want the racists to win.
England’s last visit to this stadium in 2011, also for a European qualifier, had been scarred by monkey chants towards Ashley Cole, Ashley Young and Theo Walcott. So much for the progress the Bulgarian Football Union president, Borislav Mihaylov, had trumpeted last week. After half-time, there were more audible monkey chants but the official line was that England did not hear them. They wanted to battle on.
The one hope had been for nothing unsavoury to happen but with tensions simmering in a half-empty stadium – and sounds carrying – that hope quickly disintegrated.
Mings heard the abuse during the warm-up but there were 24 minutes on the clock when Harry Kane, the England captain, began a conversation with Bebek – in line with Uefa’s protocol – and Southgate did likewise with the Uefa official on the sideline. Moments later, an announcer pleaded for the chants to stop or the game would “be suspended and may be abandoned”.
It was not difficult to pick out the monkey chants after Mings had played a pass out of defence and it was clear the England debutant had heard them because he turned towards a section of the crowd, stood still for a moment and stared. The stadium holds 44,000 but the capacity was reduced by 5,000 as a punishment by Uefa for the behaviour of the Bulgaria support in the June qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Kosovo, which was ruled to have been racist. The cordoned off area behind one of the goals was adorned by anti-racism banners. But there were further large swathes of empty seats, giving a curious backdrop to the spectacle.
From the moment Mings effectively confronted the home fans, the game ceased to be a spectacle. It was horribly edgy. At that point, England were 2-0 up and playing well, even though the action came to feel incidental.
Rashford scored the opener with a fizzing shot from an angle and the second was laid on by Sterling, who swapped passes with Kane and crossed for Ross Barkley to tap home. The England fans directed a bellowed chant to their Bulgarian rivals. “You racist bastards, you know what you are.”
Mings heard further taunts on at least two occasions before half-time and the only wonder was that the England players did not leave the pitch. During the stoppage in the 41st minute, the Bulgaria captain, Ivelin Popov, appeared to urge the home fans to calm down. England scored twice more before half-time and it was a pity their imposing football rang so hollow. Kane picked out Barkley to head past Plamen Iliev, while Kieran Trippier and Kane ushered in Sterling. By then, onlookers were wondering how much worse the situation would get and whether the game would finish.
England were quite prepared to walk off in the second half and they might have done so because there were further racist chants. It was, according to Southgate, an impossible situation. Sterling took his second goal nicely, Kane rounded off the rout with the sixth and it would have been double figures but for Iliev’s resistance. The only mercy was the full-time whistle.
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