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Why UEFA is useless at dealing with racism in soccer

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Racism in soccer can’t be curbed unless the sport’s governing bodies start holding teams accountable.

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Bulgaria v England - UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

On Monday, a UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier between England and Bulgaria in Sofia was stopped twice due to racist abuse. Bulgarian fans taunted black English players and performed fascist salutes, while the PA announcer told fans to stop as play was halted. The game would eventually be completed with England winning, 6-0.

England manager Gareth Southgate complained to the fourth official on two occasions, and the referee finally stopped play late in the first half, leading to the PA announcement.

This is the first step in UEFA’s anti-racism protocol. Step two, if the racist abuse doesn’t stop, is for the referee to take players off the pitch while another announcement is made. Step three is for the match to be abandoned. On this occasion, the referee did not progress past step one.

At halftime, Bulgaria’s captain attempted to get fans to stop the racist chanting.

While they were successful enough in reducing the abuse that the referee did not stop the match again, field microphones continued to pick up sporadic chants of monkey noise directed at black players throughout the rest of the match.

Bizarrely, Bulgaria manager Krasimir Balakov pretended he was completely unaware of what happened.

Less than 24 hours later, the head of the Bulgarian FA resigned.

UEFA should have seen this coming

A 5,000-seat section of Levski National Stadium was closed off Monday night due to racist chanting by Bulgaria fans in two previous matches against Kosovo and the Czech Republic. Because of that, England players were asked about what they might do in the face of racist abuse, and Tammy Abraham said the team would consider walking off the field together. Bulgarian officials weren’t pleased, saying that England’s speculation about potential racist abuse was “offensive.”

Unsurprisingly, in a country where football and racism have become increasingly intertwined, all this talk did not lead to racists keeping their mouths shut. As anyone could have predicted, racist abuse from the stands started early and continued throughout the match. UEFA, the organizing body in charge of the game, took no proactive measures.

This has happened for years and will keep happening for the foreseeable future

Bulgaria was previously forced to play in an empty stadium due to an incident of racist abuse in 2013. Over the last decade, UEFA has also handed down supporter bans to clubs and national teams in Hungary, Italy, Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Spain, France, Poland and Greece. It has also handed out small fines and declined to issue supporter bans for dozens of other reported racist incidents.

UEFA hoped that the introduction of its three-step policy to combat in-stadium racism would solve the problem, but that’s clearly not the case. If there are no consequences for racist chanting until after the second warning, there’s no reason for people who want to engage in racism to stop themselves until that point in time.

What UEFA needs is for football associations to start self-policing more seriously. They currently have little incentive to do so, given that UEFA has never expelled a team from competition for the actions of its fans. If threatened with multiple-year bans from international competition, the Bulgarian FA and others will have to take the problem seriously and do more to make sure their events aren’t megaphones for racists.

This is a workplace safety issue, not just a PR issue

ESPN FC writer Musa Okwonga had conversations with fans on Twitter about the emotional toll racist abuse can take on players, and I think they are worth your time. A brief selection:

Racist abuse is not just people being mean on one day. It’s not just about players having their feelings hurt while they’re on the field. Racist abuse has long-lasting psychological effects. UEFA, FIFA, and FAs have recently started taking mental health and substance abuse issues seriously after realizing the toll they take on players. It’s time to think about the effects of racism the same way, and treat it with the same level of seriousness.