Condemned by the prime minister, denied by the head coach and “pre-planned” according to a player – what’s Bulgaria’s view of the racist abuse of England players?
“I didn’t hear anything,” said Bulgaria coach Krasimir Balakov.
But the events inside the Vasil Levski National Stadium during England’s 6-0 win did not fall on deaf ears in the country’s highest office.
Prime minister Boyko Borissov has issued orders for the president of Bulgaria’s FA, Borislav Mihaylov, to resign immediately.
I strongly condemn the conduct of some of the fans at the stadium #BULENG It is unacceptable that Bulgaria which is one of the most tolerant states in the world and where people of different ethnic and religious background peacefully live together should be associated with racism
— Boyko Borissov (@BoykoBorissov)
“It is unacceptable that Bulgaria – which is one of the most tolerant states in the world and where people of different ethnic and religious background peacefully live together – should be associated with racism,” he said.
Mihaylov had sent an open letter to UEFA, claiming pre-match comments by England players such as Tammy Abraham – that England were prepared to take action if subjected to racist chanting in the match – were an affront to Bulgaria’s attempts to tackle the problem.
But despite the Bulgaria coach’s insistence that chants from their fans “must be proven”, the game was marred by the torrent of racist abuse directed at England’s players, with the match twice halted during the first half.
The England players were 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.
Bulgaria coach: ‘It has to be proven to be true’
“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,” Balakov said.
“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.”
The unacceptable behaviour was not only on the behalf of Bulgarian fans but also the English fans.
Bulgaria coach Krasimir Balakov
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.”
Bulgarian journalists in denial
Sky Sports News reporter Kaveh Solhekol explains how Bulgarian journalists did not agree that England players were the target of such abuse.
“It was a very strange atmosphere in Gareth Southgate’s news conference after the game. The English media who were there were asking the right questions asking about what was happening at half-time, and whether the players considered leaving the pitch instead of following the UEFA protocol.
“Half of the room was taken up by Bulgarian journalists and half of them were in denial. They were actually quite angry that the English media were asking questions about racism, and that Southgate was talking about racism. It got to a point where the news conference was briefly interrupted by a Bulgarian journalist who was convinced that what we had seen was not as bad.
“Also, at end when Southgate stood up to leave, one of the Bulgarian cameramen standing next to me actually swore at him.”
A Bulgarian player told the England squad that the racist abuse they endured was pre-planned and coordinated, Sky Sports News has learned.
The player, who has not been named, felt he had to apologise to the England squad and explain what he knew after the match, which ended in a 6-0 win for the visitors.
Officials confirmed to Sky Sports News in the second half of the match that around 50 individuals, dressed all in black, were ejected from the stadium during the interval.
The group are thought to be affiliated to a neo-Nazi political group and were seen giving Nazi salutes during the match.
Bulgaria goalkeeper: England ‘overreacted’
Not all of Bulgaria’s players are in agreement.
Goalkeeper Plamen Iliev has said the home fans “behaved well”, suggesting that England players “overreacted a bit”.
“If I am honest, I believe they [the fans] behaved well today,” Iliev said. “There wasn’t any abuse [as far as I could hear] and I think they [the England players] overreacted a bit.
“The public was on a good level – I didn’t hear any bad language used towards their or our players.”
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.
It is also likely to consider observations from FARE anti-racism spotters who were at the game.