SOFIA (Reuters) - Racist abuse cast a blight over a Euro 2020 qualifier between Bulgaria and England on Monday with the match in Sofia twice halted by the referee after monkey noises and chants from the crowd were aimed at black players from the visiting team.
English FA chairman Greg Clarke, present at the Levski Stadium, said it was “probably one of the most appalling nights I have seen in football.”
British broadcaster ITV showed groups of men, dressed in black clothes, cupping their mouths and hurling abuse from the stands.
England manager Gareth Southgate informed the UEFA delegate after the first incidents and a public announcement was made, with play stopped.
The abuse continued and the Group A match, which England went on to win 6-0, was again temporarily suspended by the referee under a three-step UEFA protocol for tackling abuse.
Sky Sports reporter Rob Dorsett said he had heard monkey chants on six occasions when England players Tyrone Mings and Marcus Rashford were in possession of the ball.
“I heard one fan clearly shout “Hey, monkey” as Mings passed the ball,” he said.
Mings said later that his senior debut had been “slightly overshadowed” but “ultimately we let the football do the talking.”
England striker Raheem Sterling added on Twitter he felt sorry for Bulgaria “to be represented by such idiots in their stadium.”
Southgate told reporters a ‘huge statement’ had been made by the protocol being implemented and by his players’ reaction.
“I don’t think that’s ever been a situation that’s happened before in international football,” he said. “For me, an even bigger statement was the way our players played.
“We’ve got players that have been through something they should never have to experience but have actually come off with a smile on their face because of how they’ve played.
“They always want the story to be about football but they’ve also been part of something that I think will be bigger.”
The protocol involves the referee first halting play and making an announcement to the supporters to immediately stop racist behavior.
The second step sees the match suspended for some time and both teams sent to the dressing room if the abuse continues, with another warning given to the fans. The final step is the match being abandoned.
Clarke said he was told 50 people had been thrown out at halftime.
He said the referee asked Southgate at the second stoppage, four minutes from the break, whether England wanted to leave the field and the manager had replied the team wanted to finish the half and see where things stood.
“UEFA will be carrying out a thorough investigation,” added Clarke. Not just what the ref saw and the officials around him saw, but also live footage and witness statements to make sure this appalling scene of terrible racism is treated appropriately.”
Southgate said there had been a long discussion about the situation during the second temporary stoppage.
“We were very clear that if there was anything at the beginning of the second half we would have walked straight off and frankly I don’t think we would have gone back,” he added.
Bulgarian captain Ivelin Popov spent time talking to fans through the metal fence at the break but sporadic abuse was still heard in the second half.
“You can talk about protocols, but I’m sitting here feeling sick to my stomach. It’s heart-breaking,” said former Manchester United and Ireland midfielder Roy Keane, a pundit for ITV.
Former England striker Ian Wright said it was “a terrible day for the Bulgarian people but a great one for trying to tackle racism.”
The game was being played in front of a reduced crowd after UEFA ordered a partial stadium closure due to racist behavior by Bulgarian supporters in June’s qualifiers against the Czechs and Kosovo.
Racism was a major talking point ahead of the game, with England striker Tammy Abraham indicating last week that the players could act as a group and leave the pitch if subjected to abuse.
Bulgarian supporters made monkey chants at visiting black players when England last traveled to Sofia for a European qualifier in 2011, prompting UEFA to fine the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) 40,000 euros ($44,072.00).
“We have all been waiting for a stance to be made. People who have been subjected to this abuse and hearing about their protocol have been waiting for it to be happening,” said Troy Townsend of campaign group Kick It Out.
“(UEFA) have to take the strongest possible action and that for me, is to kick Bulgaria out of the European qualifiers. It’s the only way people will take note of what they are doing to our black players.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ken Ferris and Pritha Sarkar