It’s a year to the day since the England team were victims of horrendous racist abuse in Bulgaria during a European Championship qualifying match in October 2019.
During a comfortable 6-0 victory the team were subjected to monkey chants and Nazi salutes from home supporters. Aston Villa defender Tyrone Mings, making his debut on the night, was the first of the players to report abuse to the match officials. Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling was also targeted early on in the match.
As per the Uefa protocols on racist abuse from supporters, the match was paused – first in the 28th minute with a first stage stadium announcement warning fans the game could be abandoned. Then a second stoppage followed in the 43rd minute after discussions between England manager Gareth Southgate and the referee.
The players could have gone into the dressing room at that point, as the second stage of action, but Mings later told the media they had decided to carry on until half-time.
Step three would have been to abandon the match. In the end, after team discussions at the break, it didn’t come to that. But England had taken a high-profile stand as the first international team to stop a game in response to racist abuse.
Former England striker and pundit Ian Wright called it a “seminal moment” and the world’s football media reacted with widespread praise for England and condemnation of the abuse.
One year on, Southgate and England coach Chris Powell spoke exclusively to BBC Sport about their memories of that night and the changes that have since been made.
On experiencing the racist chanting on the sideline
The game was played in a partially closed Vasil Levski Stadium after the racist behaviour of some Bulgaria fans during previous qualifiers against Kosovo and the Czech Republic in June 20119. The build-up to the game had been dominated by concerns of potential incidents of racism, and Southgate had held a meeting with his players over the weekend to underline the Uefa three-step protocol.
England manager Gareth Southgate:
It’s not a night you ever want to be involved with and it’s not a type of night I ever want to experience again. My thoughts throughout were how do we look after our players, how do we protect our players, both going into the game and during the night.
To experience the pressure of it as a head coach because of the spotlight we knew existed and the fact the decisions we were going to take were going to resonate around Europe, if not the world, was a unique experience to be in.
We tried to do the best job we could, everyone will have a view on what that should or should not have been. We highlighted an issue that is unacceptable and we were the first team at international level to bring a game to a halt for those reasons.
It’s not something that I’m particularly proud of; it’s not an evening where pride is the right word for how we dealt with it.
I felt we sent a strong message and we sent a positive message. I think as a squad and a group of staff as well, we continue to do that. We care for each other, we’re united and we don’t see discrimination of any sort as acceptable. We’ll continue to try to have a voice because we hope to make a difference.
Chris Powell had only just joined the England coaching staff at the time as part of the Football Association’s Elite Coach placement programme:
That was such a poignant moment for me what happened that evening. Gareth in his very astute way spoke to me a week before we actually got into the camp.
We spoke for about half an hour on the phone and he just said if you were a player what would you want from me as your manager? I thought it’s such a great question, because we knew we had intelligence that we may suffer racism in Bulgaria and we wanted to be well prepared.
Gareth wanted to make sure that we were prepared for what was coming. I just said support. Support from you, support from the chairman, support from everyone, staff included.
In the week leading up to Bulgaria, Gareth had a meeting with everyone, not just the players, all the staff. I said to him “don’t talk about it every day because then it will play on peoples’ minds”. He said it at the start of the camp and everyone took on board what he said.
I know for a fact the leadership group, the main characters, Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling met. We decided on how we would approach it and we felt that we would follow the Uefa protocol which I think was correct.
I know some people felt maybe we should have walked off but we were the first international team in the world to stop a game to complain about racism.
We did step one when it was first heard at Tyrone Mings and we were prepared to go to step two which was right at the end of the half. We were prepared to do step three. I know some people agreed and some didn’t.
I felt the way we behaved, the way we handled it, the way we discussed it with the referee, the fourth official and the way our chairman and everyone who is part of the FA organisation felt, we handled it brilliantly as a group.
Our behaviour was very calm. We all knew what we were doing, it wasn’t someone doing something off message; we all knew how to behave.
I felt that actually showed the rest of the world that this was a football team, a nation that was united in what they believed in. I was very, very proud – not only of the players and staff, but actually our supporters on the evening.
They can get a bad press at times, but I felt their support of everyone that evening and how they were singing and how they were proud of not only our display but our behaviour, they mirrored our behaviour.
It was a really huge moment. I was very proud to be a black Englishman that night. I can’t say anything more than that. People won’t always agree in what we did and I get that, but I felt it was the right way for us to go.
The Elite Coach Placement programme
The Elite Coach Placement Programme was introduced in 2018 with the aim of trying to solve the challenge of under-representation of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) coaches. The idea behind it was to have the off-field support staff reflect the diversity of the playing squads. In the England squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 11 of the 23 players were from a BAME background.
It’s a great honour for me to be part of the England men’s set up. I know how big a role, not only for me personally, but actually in the wider scale of things, what it would mean to be seen working among the elite players in the country. I think how that works, I have to build relationships and trust with those players.
I would be lying if I said to you I haven’t spoken to the black players quite casually because I think it’s important that they feel comfortable, especially if you are a new player to the group. You have got to get used to your surroundings and how it is to be an England player and how to carry yourself. If there are certain issues that people haven’t dealt with before and I’m not only talking about culturally, it could be just something that is quite simple.
I’m there to encourage and inspire, but also to make sure they feel part of the group and what Gareth is trying to build as a culture for the whole group.”
There are two things. One is the coaching scheme that has brought diversity to the teams and also visibility for other coaches that might aspire to be coaches in the future. I also have to point out that in our junior teams, we’ve got seven teams and three of our head coaches are from black or minority ethnic backgrounds.
We’ve taken positive steps, but those people got those roles because they were the best people for the job. Combined with that, we have also committed to giving opportunities on the coach placement scheme as well.
I feel that more and more young coaches are coming through from those communities. There are some outstanding coaches coming through who will be role models in the future. With any scheme like this, you need role models to inspire people going forward.
People need to see it is possible, before they are prepared to commit to further education and learning in order to be a coach.
Changes in the world following the death of George Floyd
The death of George Floyd brought the discussion about race and equality to the world’s attention. Floyd, died after being restrained by a white Minneapolis police officer on 25 May.
Since then, players, staff and officials in football leagues around the country have been taking the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Premier League has continued the taking of a knee into this season with the ‘No Room for Racism’ campaign.
I think that everyone would react differently because the story moves forward. At the time [in Bulgaria one year ago] we felt we took an approach that was appropriate because it was unique really. Nobody had ever gone as far as we had. We also recognise that we wouldn’t stand and accept it happening to us again.
You can sit here and talk without the responsibility of living through something. I think the whole word over the last few months has moved forward.
Educationally, I think everyone has moved forward. I think the events of the last few months have caused the majority of the world’s population to stop and think and recognise that there are things that we’ve all got wrong in the past and there are things that we all need to learn more about.
That can only be a positive because education in the end is a critical part of improving the situation.