Bulgaria coach Krasimir Balakov issued a staggering denial over racial chanting from his country’s supporters during England’s 6-0 Euro 2020 qualifying win in Sofia, adamant that abuse from fans “must be proven”.
Play was halted twice in the first half as a result of the racist abuse coming from stands, with the England players offered the option of walking off, which they turned down.
Bulgaria captain Ivelin Popov was seen speaking to fans at half-time and the abuse calmed down in the second half, but the actions of fans angered those witnessing the scenes. Balakov, though, believes there needs to be an investigation before action is taken against his nation.
“I was concentrating on the game, I didn’t hear anything,” Balakov said. “I just talked to the English press, and I told them that if this is proven to be true then we have to be ashamed and apologise for it.
“But once again, first it has to be proven to be true. If our captain spoke to the fans, it was probably because of the way the team was performing, and the whole topic in the build-up to the game.
“The fans are emotional, you obviously want me to say this and I have to say it, if something happened, I’m sure it was a small group of people who were really were out of their minds because it was unacceptable, if it happened of course.”
Balakov also suggested that England fans deserve their fair share of the criticism for their conduct in the Vasil Levski National Stadium.
“I also have to say the unacceptable behaviour was not only on the behalf of Bulgarian fans but also the English fans, who were whistling and chanting during the national anthem and used words against our fans in the second half which I found unacceptable,” Balakov told ITV Sport.
“This has not happened to us before. The disciplinary measures imposed by UEFA were not for racist chanting, it was for a banner of an organisation forbidden by Bulgarian law. We’ve had this problem ever since England were about to come to Bulgaria, all I’ve heard for three weeks is people talking about anything else but football.
“I don’t think this was the proper manner to prepare for a football game because for three weeks everyone was talking.
“If this turns out to be true we’re are truly sorry. As the Bulgarian National Team and Bulgarian Football Union are working very hard and nobody wants to see this. But let me tell you, this really has never happened in all of our games up to now and has happened in the England game. If this can be proven, we are sorry.”
Henderson blasts Balakov
England midfielder Jordan Henderson described Balakov’s reaction to the abuse during the tie as “unacceptable”, adding: “Something needs to be done.”
The Liverpool midfielder told Sky Sports: “I had a few words with the manager. It wasn’t acceptable. Something needs to be done. He needs to apologise now on behalf of the team and the fans. It’s just unacceptable. He knows what’s going on.
“He was asking me what the problem was and I told him he knew what was going on, he knew what the problem was. It was baffling how he didn’t, really. Hopefully after the game he looks back and he apologises because anybody watching that game would have been disgusted and know that’s not on.
“I felt angry. They’re my team-mates, they’re my friends who I’ve known for a long time and shared a dressing room with. It’s shocking to see. But the game goes on and you have to switch the focus to the football. I thought we did that brilliantly.
“At half-time we spoke about it, we wanted to carry on. If one person thought, ‘listen, I don’t want to go back out there, it’s not on,’ then no one would have gone back out and that’d have been it. But everyone’s message was we wanted to make them suffer and not let them win. And I thought we did that brilliantly tonight.”
Balakov said in the lead-up to the game that English football had a bigger problem with racism than Bulgaria.
“What I can say is that I don’t think we have a problem,” he said at the weekend. “In the Bulgarian championship, we have a lot of players of different ethnicities and skin colour. I don’t think that we have this big problem like, for example, England do.”
UEFA to wait before responding
UEFA has told Sky Sports News that its control, ethics and disciplinary body will wait to read the referee’s match report and the report of the UEFA delegate before launching an investigation into the racist abuse aimed at England players during the Euro 2020 qualifier in Sofia on Monday night.
They’re also likely to consider observations from FARE anti-racism spotters who were at the game.