The sounds of monkey chants and images of fans performing Nazi salutes were broadcast around the world and many believed this would be a seminal moment in football’s ongoing fight against racism.
However, UEFA, European football’s governing body, was widely criticized for the one-game stadium ban and $83,000 fine it handed Bulgaria for the racist abuse, a punishment many deemed wholly inadequate, in particular as Bulgaria was already in the middle of a partial stadium ban for a previous incident of racism.
Anti-racism organization Kick It Out and the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), among others, argued that the lack of Black, Asian and minority ethnic representatives on UEFA’s disciplinary panel was the root cause of the ineffective punishment it was handing out to federations for racist abuse.
In response, UEFA this year finally appointed former professional footballers Bobby Barnes and Célia Šašić as the first Black members on its Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body.
The PFA said Barnes has “vowed to demand a new hard-line approach on racism within” football and said incidents of racist abuse had not been dealt with to an “acceptable standard.”
“UEFA has also developed the Master for International Players (MIP) to allow ex-players, including those from BAME backgrounds, to be able to access positions with responsibilities in a quicker way,” the organization told CNN Sport.
Last year, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin also said he wanted to organize a meeting with current players to discuss the issue of racism in the game and solicit feedback on what measures need to be taken to address the issue. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, UEFA says this has been delayed.
But the incident last October didn’t just have consequences in Bulgaria, which saw its head coach and head of the football federation resign, it also forced English football into a moment of introspection.
Several incidents of racism had marred various levels of the sport and on the same day Bulgaria was handed its fine by UEFA, an English FA Cup match was being replayed after the first game was abandoned due to racist abuse from fans towards players.
Managers and coaching
English football has always suffered with a severe lack of representation at the top of the game, something it has been trying, but also struggling, to fix.
However, this figure has never been mirrored in senior positions or of authority within the sport, a critically important component as without Black representation at the top of British football, who is driving change?
Despite the English Football League announcing in June 2019 that new regulations inspired by the NFL’s ‘Rooney Rule’ would be officially introduced after an 18-month trial period, the number of Black, Asian and minority ethnic coaches in England’s top four divisions has decreased.
The rule — named after NFL diversity committee chairman Dan Rooney — requires clubs to interview at least one BAME candidate for vacant managerial or senior operational positions.
This time last year, five of the 92 (5.4%) coaches in English professional football were from a BAME background.
Now, that number is just four of 92 (4.3%); Nuno Espirito Santo of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Nottingham Forest’s Chris Hughton, Doncaster’s Darren Moore and Keith Curle of Northampton Town.
Due to Covid-19 complications and the previous season being extended, the EFL says that the final numbers for the Rooney Rule in 2019/20 are not yet available, but early indications show that it was followed in more than 60% of recruitment processes.
But if the sport is going to address the lack of representation in coaching roles, those involved know it will need to be a collective effort to undo the years of exclusion and bias, both conscious and unconscious, that have led to a dearth of Black coaches at the top of the game.
As Hughton told CNN last year, football “lost a generation of really influential black players that we feel could have made very good managers.”
“I came through an era where the perception of black individuals in football was good center forwards, good wingers, fast and strong but not really captain or management material,” he said.
“I think after that, it never allowed the game to have them as black role models and as managers for the next generation behind them.”
The pilot scheme, which will give six coaches per season a 23-month work placement at EFL clubs, began at the start of the current 2020/21 season and the EFL says an update on its early stages will be provided shortly.
Nonetheless, Troy Townsend, the Head of Development at anti-racism organization Kick It Out, admitted to being “a little bit underwhelmed” by the new initiative and fears yet another generation of black players will be overlooked when it comes to getting jobs in management.
The FA, English football’s governing body, launched ‘In Pursuit of Progress’ in 2018, a three-year equality, diversity and inclusion strategy.
The FA said one of the initiative’s highlights was the addition 2,206 newly-qualified BAME coaches in the last 12 months. It told CNN that the Rooney Rule and placement scheme would offer those who completed Level 3 courses — equivalent to a UEFA B license — the chance to find a pathway to positions at English clubs.
Since the Rooney Rule was implemented at the FA, it says “every national team coaching role has seen at least one BAME candidate interviewed, where a suitably qualified BAME candidate applied.”
But not everyone is convinced it’s working in its current form.
“The Rooney rule is a recruitment mechanism that is one of the ways to redress the balance,” FARE director Piara Powar told CNN.
“The way the EFL has used it as a ‘voluntary code’ which allows clubs to opt out as they wish, has not been effective in offering opportunities to qualified Black candidates for senior coaching roles. It has not changed the numbers or given Black coaches confidence in the process that clubs use to recruit.
“Black and other minority candidates for coaching jobs need to be given the same space and the opportunity to flourish, and to fail, in the same way as their White peers, not to rely on exceptional individuals to emerge.”
Senior leadership and the boardroom
The FA also lists an increase in diversity among its own workforce as one of the strategy’s key achievements, which includes a rise from 5% to 6% of people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in leadership positions at the organization. By August 2021, the FA wants that figure to be 11%.
In June, the chairman of the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board, Paul Elliott, announced the creation of the Football Leadership Diversity Code, which he said will “be a firm and tangible commitment to diversity and inclusion in boardrooms, senior administration and coaching.”
The FA says the Code will be launched in late October 2020 to coincide with the UK’s Black History Month and independent experts from across the sport — including coaches, chairmen, players and the media — have been consulted throughout the Code’s development.
“We do recognize the lack of diversity across senior leadership roles within English football and the Football Leadership Diversity Code, which is launching later this month, is being created and led by The FA with trying to address that issue in mind,” the FA told CNN.
The EFL says just 6% of its employees are from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, though it regularly assesses the demographic of its workforce, while the Premier League says its figure is 12.22%.
“The EFL recognizes that the statistics provided do not reflect the local communities in which our operations are placed and there is a long-term commitment to better reflect our diverse communities within our workforce,” it said.
Those positions of authority also cover referees within the game, with the proportion of those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds up from the 8.6% last year, but still only at 9.4%.
In August, Sam Allison became the first Black referee to be promoted to England’s top four divisions since Uriah Rennie, who retired from the sport in 2009.
To date, Rennie remains the only Black referee to have officiated in the Premier League.
“There is pressure in life, just in general, being a Black male in society. In regards to football, of course, there is going to be pressure but I think the skills and support you have will help you deal with that pressure.
“It’s good to have pressure sometimes, we have to thrive on it.”
With social media’s growth over the last decade, incidents of online racist abuse have only become more prevalent.
With matches being played behind closed doors, the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented players from being abused in stadium — the British Home Office notes the number of football banning orders in England and Wales is down 8% from last year — but the threat of being targeted online remains.
Both Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, and Twitter have come in for criticism for not protecting Black footballers from the racist abuse they receive on their platforms.
According to Kick It Out, reports of discrimination on social media are up 229% on last year.
Premier League star Wilfried Zaha told CNN earlier this year that he had been forced to remove Twitter from his phone as the torrent of racist abuse becomes unbearable and questioned the effectiveness of Instagram’s privacy settings, given the ease with which anonymous accounts can send him racist messages.
On Sunday, Facebook and Kick It Out launched ‘Take A Stand,’ a new joint initiative is intended to educate fans on how to call out racism, both online and offline.
The new initiative includes an “anti-discrimination toolkit,” which fans can access through an automated WhatsApp service and receive information on how to tackle and report discrimination.
Facebook recently announced new tools, such as automatically hiding comments similar to those already reported and direct message controls, that it hopes will tackle online abuse. The organization says its systems detect 95% of hate speech before anyone reports it, though the social media company added that it “knows they have more work to do.”
In July, Facebook and Instagram announced they would each be setting up a team to fight racism on their platforms and assess whether there is racial bias in their algorithms after it was suggested that posts with the Black Lives Matter hashtag were being hidden, though they are yet to release their findings.
Twitter has pledged its support to the ‘Take A Stand’ initiative and also launched ‘Stand Up To Hate,’ a joint campaign with 11 charities, including Kick It Out, that it believes will “combat hate online and encourage digital citizenship.”
In an attempt to combat the online abuse faced by footballers, over the past season Twitter has regularly met with groups within the sport and hosted training days for the media teams of clubs throughout the football pyramid.
Zaha told CNN he felt social media companies place the burden of responsibility for dealing with racist abuse on the shoulders of Black footballers, rather than on the culprits or themselves, though Twitter says it has improved its methods to reduce this burden of reporting and increase its efficiency.
Twitter has set up a Black Lives Matter topic on the platform to make it easier for people to find tweets from organizations and activists and notes that from May 25 to June 19, there were more than 340 million tweets about Black Lives Matter.
Meanwhile, the Premier League has launched a dedicated reporting system for players, managers, coaches and their family members who receive serious discriminatory online abuse.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis in May, the Black Lives Matter movement grew in prominence in the UK.
Players knelt at the start of every Premier League and EFL match following the restart of the postponed football season. However, at the end of September, Championship clubs Queens Park Rangers and Coventry opted not to kneel before kick off.
QPR director of football Les Ferdinand, one of the very few Black people that holds a senior role involved in the running of an English football club, said the symbolism of players taking a knee has been “diluted.”
“The taking of the knee has reached a point of ‘good PR’ but little more than that,” he said. “The message has been lost. It is now not dissimilar to a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge.
“What are our plans with this? Will people be happy for players to take the knee for the next 10 years but see no actual progress made? Taking the knee will not bring about change in the game — actions will.”
The FA, EFL and Premier League say they all support players who still want to protest injustice and inequality, including taking the knee, but all know that more needs to be done.
“Les Ferdinand is right to ask ‘what next’ after taking the knee,” Powar said. “Taking the knee has been a powerful gesture by players, it sent a very clear message to the world. Now the question is whether the football authorities, those in the boardrooms, understood the message and whether they will act on it.”
“National football associations, leagues and clubs need to do a better job and implement very clear mechanisms how they will diversify their recruitment and provide opportunities for ethnic minority candidates and women. We will also be launching a toolkit to advise them.
“We feel that little is being done to diversity beyond a few associations and much of what has been done has not been consistent or effective. It has led to little real change.”
In the year since that shameful night in Bulgaria, several have organizations have taken action to try and tackle discrimination — some as a direct result, some not — but change has been slow. For some, it will perhaps rightly feel too slow.
Statements of support are well and good but, as Ferdinand says, only real action with affect change. Steps along the path have been taken, but there is still a long, long road ahead.
Analysis by Darren Lewis, CNN World Sport contributor
Football continues to fail them.
All of them. From the superstar Black players who will perhaps not appreciate the scale of the opportunity they passed up that night in Sofia to the lesser lights in the lower leagues without that A-list status.
All of them remain at risk of being racially abused when they pull on pair of boots and go to work.
A year to the day since that racist abuse in Bulgaria to which England’s players were subjected, nothing has changed. To a man they should have walked off, drawn a line in the sand and sent a message that would have reverberated around the world.
Instead they played on. If you do what you always do, you get what you always get.
The people in charge will tell you that things have changed. That they’ve toughened their laws, strengthened their stance and are ready to flex their administrative muscles when the next racist outrage occurs.
The truth, however, is that we are no further forward than we were on that predictable night in Sofia 12 months ago.
Not when the USA midfielder Weston McKennie — who joined Juventus in the summer — accepts this week that he represents a country that “possibly doesn’t even accept me just for the color of my skin.”
Not when French Football Federation president and European delegate to the ruling committee of world governing body FIFA, Noel Le Graet, maintains only last month that the “phenomenon of racism in sport, and in football in particular, does not exist at all or barely does.”
Not when the grassroots players in England — the serial offenders operating without the scrutiny of the cameras — escape punishment.
Not when the English game has just one Black referee and Black representation in the dug out in single figures.
And not when England’s Football Association board still does not have a single black member — five months after superstar international footballer Raheem Sterling called out its lack of representation. Who indeed is driving the change?
You’d have thought, in the aftermath of that night in Bulgaria, that the English game would have seen the need for some self-reflection beyond the soundbites.
Head to Wikipedia. Type Racism in English football into the search bar. You’ll need a cup of tea and quite some time to get through the many examples in 2019 alone.
Football could deal with it if it really wanted to.
In fact, you have to go back 21 years for the last time a manager did took his players off the field in disgust — Steve Bruce in the FA Cup against Arsenal.
That, however, was over a disputed goal. Not racism.
Championship club Birmingham, in the second tier of English football, were among a number of clubs docked points in the last 18 months for breaching financial rules. Just like that.
The football authorities, however, refuse to administer a similar punishment for racism.
It matters more when there’s money on it.
English football is scared even to say the word Black. The Black Lives Matter mantra in the Premier League this season has been replaced by No Room For Racism.
In the second tier of English football it has been supplanted by the ludicrous, anodyne ‘Not Today Or Any Day.’
English football does not prioritize eradicating racism. It never has.
When QPR director of football Les Ferdinand called out the sport last month for obsessing over taking the knee and “going around in circles” on the issue, the game made him the story instead of taking a look in the mirror.
So, have we moved on since Bulgaria 2019? No we have not. Not by a long way.