The match was almost forced to be abandoned after fans were heard making racist chants at a number of England players. The offending fans, who were forced to leave the stadium at half time, were suspected far right supporters, with many dressed in balaclavas and several shown on camera doing Nazi salutes.
The response by the players on the night was widely applauded as they followed UEFAs three strikes system and almost walked off the pitch. Despite worries post-match that the Bulgarian camp weren’t taking the claims seriously enough, with the manager claiming not to have heard the chants, most were encouraged by the resignation of the Bulgarian Football Association’s President and the arrests of five of the offenders.
On the night many hoped that the incident could act as a turning point, with Gareth Southgate’s England side leading the charge of a real, concerted effort to rid the international game of the stain of racism. However the punishment handed out by UEFA has been widely perceived as showing that the governing body is once again shying away from the issue and not taking it seriously enough.
The fine handed out to the Bulgarian side is less than the one given to Nicklas Bendtner for wearing Paddy Power pants at Euro 2012, showing UEFA to attach more importance to protecting their commercial interests than kicking racism out of football. The fine amounts to less than a quarter of many top players’ weekly wage and cannot be truly thought to have an effect on such a deep-rooted societal issue.
Whilst condemning games to be played behind closed doors is a forward step the measure has been taken before and shown to have little impact, with games having been played behind closed doors in many European countries recently to little effect. It can only be presumed that, whilst the measure will rid at least one game of any racist incidents, many of the same offending fans will return once the ban is up, and will presumably carry on acting in the same way.
After the match in October Ian Wright made an impassioned speech in which he said that if that night’s incident was treated seriously enough, with governing bodies following the lead of players on the pitch in taking strong and appropriate action, then it could eventually be seen as a positive night. If Bulgaria’s punishment had fit the crime then that night would have been remembered as one when football finally started taking racism seriously enough. As it is, this punishment means that the incident will be just one in a long line of racist incidents in international football that resulted in a slap on the wrist, the issue being brushed under the carpet, and nothing at all changing.