England eased to a resounding victory against Bulgaria last night but the Euro 2020 qualifying match was marred by racist abuse.
The build-up to the game had been dominated by fears that there could be incidents of racism and England staff had to alert match officials to it during the first half in Sofia.
The Croatian referee Ivan Bebek spoke to England captain Harry Kane and a stadium announcement, calling for the racist chanting to stop, was made over the public address system in the 28th minute.
The match was halted for a second time in the 43rd minute before resuming and reaching half-time, at which point the visitors were 4-0 to the good thanks to goals from Marcus Rashford, Ross Barkley (two) and Raheem Sterling. The racist chanting was more isolated in the second half as Sterling added another in the second half, before Kane got on the scoresheet five minutes from time.
England manager Gareth Southgate spoke to the fourth official with around five minutes of the first 45 to go, while defender Tyrone Mings was seen asking an assistant referee, ‘Did you hear that?’ during the first half and Nazi salutes were seen among a section of the home fans.
Bulgaria captain Ivelin Popov was in a heated debate with a section of home supporters near the tunnel as the rest of the players headed for the dressing rooms at half-time.
The stadium announcer said when the first chanting was reported: “This is an important stadium announcement, because of racist behaviour which is interfering with the game, the referee has indicated that he may have to suspend the match.
“Racism in football stadiums will not be tolerated. Please be in no doubt that the game will be suspended and may be abandoned if racist behaviour continues amongst spectators. Help everyone enjoy the game and say no to racism. Thank you.”
The Levski Stadium was subject to a partial closure for this match after Bulgaria were sanctioned for racist chanting during qualifiers against Kosovo and the Czech Republic.
Armchair viewers back home heard ITV pundit Ian Wright describe it as a “great day” in trying to tackle racism.
He said: “It’s a terrible day for the Bulgarian people and how they have been represented, it’s a great day in respect of trying to tackle racism. We can see over in that stand, with those [anti-racism] banners, which mean nothing.
“What we’re seeing is a set of fans who do not care and need educating.”
The former England striker continued: “As a black player, we’ve heard it for many years about walking off.
“But you do need your white players to do that for you, so you can go off together. When that can happen, when you can see how powerful that is, that will do something.”
Rashford had got England off the mark with a stunning strike from the left-hand side of the box, before a Barkley tap-in and then header put the game beyond doubt after half an hour. Sterling and Kane got their names on the scoresheet after the break but, by then, the on-field action had become an afterthought.
Southgate, whose team still need a point to qualify for the Euro 2020 finals, said at full-time: “I think we have managed to make two statements by winning the game but also we have raised the awareness of everyone to this situation.
“The game was stopped twice and I know for some people that won’t be enough but I think as a group we were on board with that process.”