UEFA leader wants ‘war on racists’ after English face abuse

By Rob Harris - AP Global Soccer Writer

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin urged governments to escalate the “war on the racists” to help soccer authorities eliminate them from stadiums after England players faced abuse in Bulgaria.

In a statement to The Associated Press on Tuesday, Ceferin blamed a rise in nationalism across Europe for fueling racism at matches and said UEFA was committed to imposing strong punishments.

The Bulgarian Football Union was charged by UEFA over its fans making Nazi salutes and directing monkey noises at England’s black players, which led to the European Championship qualifier in Sofia being stopped twice on Monday.

“Believe me, UEFA is committed to doing everything it can to eliminate this disease from football,” Ceferin told the AP. “We cannot afford to be content with this. We must always strive to strengthen our resolve.

“More broadly, the football family — everyone from administrators to players, coaches and fans — needs to work with governments and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to wage war on the racists and to marginalize their abhorrent views to the fringes of society.”

But the English Football Association is also facing punishment from UEFA after a disciplinary case was opened into their fans jeering through the Bulgarian national anthem and bringing an insufficient numbers of stewards.

The Bulgarian Football Union was also charged for disrupting the English national anthem. But, in a swift fallout after coming under pressure from Bulgaria’s prime minister, BFU president Borislav Mihailov said he would resign at a meeting on Friday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office called on UEFA to impose tough penalties on Bulgaria. Ceferin sees eradicating racism as part of a wider effort.

“Football associations themselves cannot solve this problem,” Ceferin said. “Governments too need to do more in this area. Only by working together in the name of decency and honor will we make progress.”

UEFA’s racism monitoring partner, the Fare network, called on Bulgaria to be blocked from qualifying for Euro 2020 as punishment for repeated racism offenses.

Ceferin maintains that UEFA’s “sanctions are among the toughest in sport” and that the organization was willing to get tough.

“As a governing body, I know we are not going to win any popularity contests, but some of the views expressed about UEFA’s approach to fighting racism have been a long way off the mark,” Ceferin said.

Monday’s game was played in a partially closed stadium as punishment for racist behavior by Bulgaria fans during a home qualifier against Kosovo. A 3,000-seat section of Vasil Levski National Stadium was already due to be closed for the Czech Republic’s visit next month because of another racist incident in June when Bulgaria played in Prague.

Bulgaria could be in line for a stronger punishment if UEFA’s disciplinary panel decides Monday’s incident was a third offense in Euro 2020 qualifying, with at least one game potentially ordered to be played behind closed doors.

“There were times, not long ago, when the football family thought that the scourge of racism was a distant memory,” Ceferin said. “The last couple of years have taught us that such thinking was, at best, complacent.

“The 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.”

UEFA has had a three-step process in place for a decade to deal with racism at matches.

The first step was enforced during the first break in Sofia, with the public announcer warning that the match could be called off completely unless the racist abuse stopped. During the second break, dozens of Bulgaria fans involved in the chanting, many of them wearing dark hoodies, left the stadium. England players decided against not continuing playing.

“UEFA’s sanctions are among the toughest in sport for clubs and associations whose supporters are racist at our matches,” Ceferin said. “The minimum sanction is a partial closure of the stadium — a move which costs the hosts at least hundreds of thousands in lost revenue and attaches a stigma to their supporters.”

UEFA’s disciplinary case against Bulgaria is set to include evidence from the Fare network’s anti-racism monitors.

While Bulgaria is in last place in the qualifying group, it could still potentially reach Euro 2020 via the playoffs route linked to the Nations League competition.

“We believe events in Sofia last night should result in Bulgaria being kicked out of Euro 2020 by being denied any possible entry to the finals,” Fare network executive director Piara Powar told the AP. “The scale of the problems in evidence, the failure of the Bulgarian FA to take effective preventative measures, and the continuing denial from its leadership shows that this is a football structure that does not deserve to be competing with the elite in Europe.

“They should be held accountable. We believe the legal armory and evidence is there for UEFA to move to their final sanctioning step.”

That, according to Powar, would make countries “sit up and take notice” of the racism problem on their doorstep.

“It would have the impact of sending a clear and decisive message that football will not accept racism as a normative behavior,” Powar said. “The impact at national level across Europe would be profound.”

By Rob Harris

AP Global Soccer Writer