The chorus came midway through the second half.
“Who put the ball in the racists’ net? Raheem f**king Sterling!”
England’s travelling fans did their country proud (that has not always been the case) in their defiance against the despicable racist abuse directed towards Tyrone Mings and the other black Three Lions representatives in Sofia on Monday night.
Monkey chants were audible several times in a first half that was stopped twice as UEFA enacted their protocol for tackling racism.
The crowd were warned against such behaviour via the stadium’s PA system before a second lengthy stoppage just before half-time when Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and others gathered by the touchline.
ITV showed a montage which featured a group of Bulgarian fans dressed in black making far-right salutes — the group either left or were ejected shortly after and the game wasn’t stopped again.
England cruised to a 6-0 victory against a poor home side but sadly the six minutes added to the first half (to make up for the racism stoppages) will live longer in the memory than the fine performances of Harry Kane, Ross Barkley, Harry Winks, Marcus Rashford, Ben Chilwell, Sterling and Mings.
You have to feel for the latter especially.
An international debut should be one of the most special moments of a player’s career and it’s unfair that the Aston Villa centre-back will forever be forced to associate it with inexcusable prejudice.
Football’s governing bodies have previously been criticised for their failure to act appropriately to racism, with insignificant fines proving ineffective.
While many believe there should be a zero tolerance policy towards racism (and it’s hard to argue against such a stance), the deployment of UEFA’s protocol is preferable to the inaction we’ve seen in the past, even if you think a three-strike approach is too lenient.
Kick It Out have released a statement saying they believe the game should have been abandoned.
Sky Sports are reporting Bulgarian Prime Minister has called for the president of the Bulgarian Football Union to resign in the wake of last night’s tragedy.
It remains to be seen how the authorities will punish Bulgaria but perhaps the most important reaction is that of the England fans present in Sofia last night.
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In addition to the ode to Sterling using his talent to combat racism, the away fans chanted: “You racist b*stards, you know what you are!”
The defiant stance was appreciated by the England players, many of whom were quick to praise the fans after the game.
Marcus Rashford tweeted: “Thankful to the brilliant England support. You got behind us in the most meaningful way possible tonight and we are all very grateful.”
What’s crucial now is those who travelled to Sofia retain that sense of uniting against racism and take it back to their respective clubs.
Let’s hope they show the same outrage when someone wearing the same shirt as them sat three rows ahead shouts something unacceptable during a Premier League game, Championship game, Non-League game, etc.
There was an outpouring of support for England’s players on social media from those in this country.
If the ugly scenes in Sofia cause a change in attitude of at least a few previously ignorant individuals then at least a some good would have come from an evening of deep unpleasantness.
Inevitably, there will be some who confused souls who will think differently about the situation when the abuse is directed at a rival.
As if club loyalty has any bearing on how on the acceptability of such behaviour.
During his post-match press conference, Southgate was right to acknowledge racism is a problem in English football too.
Sadly the same honesty can’t be said for Bulgaria coach Krasimir Balakov, who said he didn’t hear any racist chanting at all.
A Bulgarian journalist also interrupted Southgate, calling his response an ‘exaggeration’ and describing the game as ‘so friendly’.
At this stage, only captain Ivelin Popov has come out with any credit from Bulgaria’s side — he pleaded with the home fans to cease their abuse at half time.
Racism is a global issue and to interpret it differently because of football or patriotism only compounds the problem.