By Jonathan Copping, Lawyer, Stone King, London, UK
The recent European Championships 2020 qualifying match, on 14 October 2019, between Bulgaria and England has again resulted in a high-profile match being overshadowed by incidents of racism.
The match, which England won 6-0, was stopped twice following alleged racist chants aimed at England players.
The match was first stopped in the 28th minute when England player, Raheem Sterling, was the target of abuse. Although the match continued in accordance with UEFA’s protocol for dealing with racism, which provides that matches should only be called off as a final step and the crowd addressed on the consequences should further abuse occur, the match was again stopped just before half-time.
The location for the match, the Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia, was already partly closed due to racist abuse during a match in June.
Prior to the match, Bulgaria’s then coach, Krasimir Balakov, accused England of having bigger racism problems than Bulgaria. After the match, Balakov claimed that he did not hear any racist chanting during the match, although he did later release a statement acknowledging the incidents and apologised for the racist behaviour. Balakov subsequently resigned from his position together with the president of the Bulgaria football association, Boris Mihaylov.
Bulgaria will face sanctions from UEFA following the match; however, there are calls for severe sanctions, including points deductions and tournament expulsion.
To date, UEFA has a tendency to sanction nations or clubs found to be in breach of racist behaviour by monetary fines, partial stadium closures or complete stadium bans. The monetary fines are generally no more than £100,000. In 2015, UEFA did, in fact, sanction Croatia with a one-point deduction following repeated offences.
In a statement released by ‘Kick it Out’, a charity tackling racism and discrimination, calls were made for meaningful sanctions:
“It’s now time for UEFA to step up and show some leadership. For far too long, they have consistently failed to take effective action. The fact Bulgaria are already hosting this game with a partial stadium closure for racist abuse shows that UEFA’s sanctions are not fit for purpose.
“There can be no more pitiful fines or short stadium bans. If UEFA care at all about tackling discrimination – and if the Equal Game campaign means anything – then points deductions and tournament expulsion must follow”
Away from international football, the FA Cup 4th round qualifying match between Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town, on 19 October 2019, was abandoned following reports of alleged racist abuse aimed at Haringey Borough’s goalkeeper, who was also spat at, by Yeovil Town fans.
Following the match two people have been arrested on suspicion of racially aggravated common assault.
Further instances of racist abuse have been prevalent in recent months, including abuse aimed at Chelsea footballer, Tammy Abraham, after his penalty miss in the European Super Cup Final on 14 August 2019, and at Liverpool footballer, Trent Alexander-Arnold, during a match between Manchester United and Liverpool on 20 October 2019.
Whilst stadium bans, points deductions, tournament expulsions and life bans for individuals are all sanctions aimed at acting as a deterrent for racist and discriminatory behaviour, education needs to play a central role in wiping racism and discrimination out of football.
Footballing authorities can assist with educating people by dedicating more resources to anti-racism and anti-discrimination measures.
Jonathan Copping may be contacted by e-mail at ‘JonathanCopping@stoneking.co.uk’