There is no reason that any player, white or black, should have to go to a country or a stadium with a history of racist abuse.
Raheem Sterling is many things: arguably the outstanding English player of his generation; a leading light for both his club, Manchester City, and his national team; an articulate, considered and urgent voice on the issue of racism both within football and outside it. He is not, and he should not be expected to be, an expert on the intricacies of Bulgarian politics.
On Tuesday, a few hours after Sterling and his England teammates were subjected to incessant racist abuse during a European Championship qualifying game against Bulgaria in Sofia — abuse so bad that play was halted, twice, to warn the crowd that the match might be abandoned if the abuse continued; so bad that Bulgaria's captain, Ivelin Popov, pleaded with his own fans to desist; so bad that a number of England's multiracial back room staff members were visibly upset by it; so bad that the result, a 6-0 England win, will be nothing but a footnote — Sterling tweeted a message of thanks to Bulgaria's prime minister, Boyko Borisov.
On the surface, it was easy to see why: Borisov had, after all, demanded the resignation of Boris Mihaylov, the president of the body that runs football in Bulgaria, as penance for an evening that had brought international condemnation of the country. In a possible breach of FIFA's rules on governmental interference, he had ordered that the sports ministry withhold its funding to the Bulgarian football authorities until Mihaylov quit.
Such swift and decisive action is, surely, commendable, as Sterling understandably thought. The complication is that Borisov — leader of a center-right party — is only in power because of a coalition with a faction known as United Patriots, a grouping of three far-right parties who stand accused of "establishing xenophobia as a government policy." And because what happened at Monday's football game in Bulgaria was hardly an isolated incident.
The European season is only a few weeks old, but it has already spawned a litany of examples of players being subjected to racist abuse, including at least three in Italy: Romelu Lukaku during a game at Cagliari; Dalbert of Fiorentina while playing against Atalanta; and Franck Kessie at Verona. Social media has produced yet more bile, most recently toward Manchester United's Paul Pogba and Chelsea's Tammy Abraham. And those, of course, are merely the most high-profile cases.
It was the same last season, including an incident that helped Sterling find his voice on the topic, and the season before that. It is hard to quantify if European football's problem with racism is getting worse. It is easy to see that it most certainly is not getting better.
The shame of Sofia is not unique, in that context, but it is instructive in two ways. One is illustrated in the issue that wrong-footed Sterling. The president of European football's governing body, Aleksander Ceferin, suggested in the aftermath of Monday night that a "rise of nationalism across the continent has fueled some unacceptable behavior, and some have taken it upon themselves to think that a football crowd is the right place to give voice to their appalling views."
Bulgaria is a case in point: It is hard to see why football would be immune to the currents that have swept three far-right parties into government there and that encourage some 2,000 people every year to join the Lukov march, a demonstration honouring a Nazi-sympathising general that takes place in Sofia every February.
The same pattern is being repeated across Europe: in Italy, where Lukaku, Kessie and Dalbert were abused and where anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise; and in England, too, where the prime minister, Boris Johnson, railed Tuesday against the scourge of racism in sports roughly a year after saying that Muslim women wearing burqas looked like "letter boxes."
But while that highlights the complexity, and scale, of the challenge facing football, it does not give it a free pass. Too often, whenever racism has reared its head in the stands at games, the argument that it is simply a manifestation of a social problem has been used to excuse inaction. Only when racism is absent from society can it be expected to be absent from sports, the logic runs.
There is some truth in that, of course, but that does not mean sports should sit around and wait. Gareth Southgate, the England manager, said his players have been "hardened" to racism because of the issues they face at home, a brave statement for a manager who might have seen an opportunity to take the easy path to the higher ground. There is a bleak truth in that, and yet it did not stop England's players from doing what they could to make a stand, an example that UEFA might follow.
Just because racism exists in society does not mean, after all, that it should be permitted to exist in the closed environment of football. The old idea that the best way to prove the racists wrong is by winning — as though black players who are abused and lose, simply because they happen to be on weaker teams, are in some way complicit in their own punishment — has been proven wrong. So, too, has the belief that stopping games is in some way giving the racists what they want.
It is here that what happened in Sofia offers its second lesson. England's players were abused in a stadium that was operating at limited capacity because of a similar incident in a previous game, and Bulgaria's next game is subject to a partial stadium closure for the same reason. UEFA's paltry fines for racist offenses have long been a laughingstock, despite Ceferin's protestations to the contrary.
If he is to follow through on his promise this week to "wage war" against the racists — one that, as he said, needs to involve an alliance of leagues, clubs, governing bodies, governments and everyone else — then he needs to use the true armoury at his disposal.
Many would advocate an outright ban for teams or nations that are repeat offenders, like Bulgaria. If there is a fear that may nourish some sort of victim complex — though it should be pointed out that at the heart of all far-right thinking is a contorted sense of persecution — then perhaps a simpler solution is at hand.
There is no reason that any player, white or black, should be expected to go and play in a country with a history of racist abuse. Perhaps, then, those nations where this occurs depressingly frequently should be forced to play all of their matches away from home. The same punishment could be meted out to club teams, rather than forcing games to be played without fans but on familiar ground.
Neither punishment, of course, will end the problem of racism in society. But that is not football's job. All that football can do is ensure that it does not feel like a safe space for those that hold these views to express them. What happened in Sofia showed the scale, and nature, of the problem. The test for the sport is to prove it is not cowed by that.
Written by: Rory Smith
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES