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; a considered and urgent voice on the issue of racism both within soccer 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.
Feeling sorry for Bulgaria to be represented by such idiots in their stadium. Anyway.. 6-0 and we go back home, at least we did our job. Safe travel to our fans, u guys did well 🤟🏾❤️
— Raheem Sterling (@sterling7) October 14, 2019
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 soccer 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 soccer 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 Monday in Sofia was hardly an isolated incident.
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) October 15, 2019
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 soccer’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 soccer’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 soccer 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 honoring a Nazi-sympathizing general that takes place in Sofia every February.