Connor Southwell: England fans can be proud how players dealt with racism in Sofia
- Credit: PA
Racism in football has been a long-standing epidemic with last night’s game between England and Bulgaria serving as a pertinent reminder that the sport has a long way to go to eradicate it.
As the events unfolded in Sofia, it was difficult to prevent feelings of disgust from sitting within the pit of your stomach. Supporters in the stands unleashed a tirade of racist abuse towards the English operators, with the volume of the chants being picked up by television microphones and the perpetrators exposed by cameras.
It acted as a vivid transportation back to the terraces in the 1970s, when racism and football walked hand in hand.
Fixtures contained a dark undercurrent of discrimination that plagued the game, with inclusivity being a word neglected by those responsible.
Young supporters would often have to tuck their yellow and green scarves tightly within their coats with any flash of opposing colours enough to result in a brawl. It wasn't just a difference of colour in scarves; it was skin also. Black players were intimidated, abused and subjected to abhorrent chants that undermined their place within society.
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English football has moved radically away from the era of hooliganism to one where football has become, for the majority, more family-orientated.
Racism hasn't disappeared, however, with the recent happenings at Hartlepool United merely weeks ago evidence of how far the game has to travel to squash this problem.
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As Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings sought to beat the Bulgarians on the pitch; they were fighting constant monkey chants, racist typecasting and vile abuse from the stands. That feeling of horror that sat on the bed of supporters' stomachs at home would have been suffocating for the professionals merely attempting to do their jobs.
As they looked up from the pitch and saw the various equality banners emblazoned around vacant sections of the stadium closed for previous convictions of racial abuse, their ears would have been filled by chants aimed to degrade them perpetuated by supporters who continue to deny there's a problem.
Those aforementioned decades in English football were dark. Black players were encouraged to 'get on with it' rather than fight against it; it was a societal norm that required addressing. As Ian Wright so poignantly said about in the aftermath of the game, 'this is a seminal moment. We've got a generation of players and people who won't tolerate this anymore'.
UEFA's protocol was enacted, serving as a method of proving they are attempting to address the issue. Step one involved a prerecorded reminder being played through the public address system as they pleaded with a faction of Bulgarian supporters to stop being racist.
Step two involved halting proceedings on the pitch, the second strike to reduce the wave of discrimination created by those in the terraces.
In essence, this system allows racist abuse two free hits prior to abandonment - thus constructing a threshold for the nature of the abuse to reach. This protocol has been in place since 2009, with it designed to place more power in the match officials hands so they can deal with the abuse accordingly.
This system can only be used to address mass amounts of racism rather than individual cases. On the pitch side microphones, that abuse continued in the second half. One racist chant makes as big an impact as fifty.
England boss Gareth Southgate admitted post-match that, for some, England's stance wouldn't have been enough. He also acknowledged the domestic issues spread across social media and still being uttered in terraces as heard from Aston Villa's supporters in a chant aimed at one of their players at Carrow Road.
Crucially, the difference is that the English FA are attempting to deal with the issues rather than placing their fingers in their ears and categorically denying them.
UEFA will point towards hash tags, slogans and logos as methods of dealing with the issue but their inactivity has contributed to the issue manifesting itself within the game.
When Nicholas Bendtner is getting fined more for brandishing a bookmakers name on a pair of underpants than others receive for being found guilty of racial abuse, then the European governing body cannot suggest racism is being addressed adequately.
As Southgate spoke with intellect in his press conference, Bulgarian journalists shouted 'exaggeration' and swore as the England manager addressed the issues pertinent throughout the game.
England's current crop are an inspiring bunch. In Sterling, a young star who is willing to confront discrimination at home and overseas, Mings stood tall with composure and Rashford refused to allow racism a victory.
Football's power is within society, creating role models and spreading messages to create optimism for the future.
Fundamentally, you don't need to be a football player, coach or supporter to condemn racism - you just need to be a human being.