England footballers may walk off the pitch against Bulgaria if they hear racism from the stands. Part of the stadium in Sofia will be closed after previous incidents but officials feel their country is being denigrated.
England's Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria is far from a headline act. Gareth Southgate's side are top of Group A with a game in hand having won each of their previous four outings, while Bulgaria sit bottom of the group without a win to their name.
However, the buildup to the game has been making the headlines for reasons that have very little to do with the action on the pitch, both in England and abroad.
The Vasil Levski National Stadium in Sofia will be partially closed for Monday's clash with the Three Lions due to previous cases of racism and the showcasing of far-right symbols in the stands. Of the stadium's 46,340 capacity, 5,000 seats will be empty for the visit of England and 3,000 for the game against the Czech Republic next month.
Abraham's words ruffle feathers
"We've had meetings about it, and we've touched base on how to deal with the situation,” England striker Tammy Abraham said, adding that captain Harry Kane had gone as far as to suggest that England would "all come off the pitch together” if they felt it was the right course of action.
Abraham's quotes have ruffled feathers in Bulgaria with the president of the country's football association (BFU), Borislav Mihaylov, referring to them as "offensive” and "derogatory”. In an open letter to UEFA, Mihaylov expressed his concern about England breaking UEFA's new three-step procedure and pointed out that English football has itself not been free of incidents of racism.
In response, England manager Gareth Southgate voiced his understanding of the reaction during his pre-match press conference. "We don't look at other countries in a way that we don't shine a mirror on our own,” said the England boss.
The situation is "heating up”
Metodi Shumanov, a Bulgarian football journalist, told Deutsche Welle that racism is more prevalent in the country's football scene than it is in wider society. "Some racist fans are using racist language to distract rivals players, which is of course no excuse,” he says. "There is no excuse for racism.”
However, Shumanov explains that the consensus in Bulgaria is that the comments made by England's players aren't helpful. "It's heating up the situation and portraying Bulgaria as a racist country.”
Shumanov also believes the decision to partially close the stadium for Bulgaria's games against England and the Czech Republic is counterproductive, as "seeing empty seats will always damage the atmosphere.”
Increased number of observers in attendance
With the fixture in focus, the work of those responsible for documenting any discriminatory incidents will be key. Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) is a network working with UEFA to counter racism in European football. Their reports often serve as evidence in UEFA's disciplinary cases and their representatives will be in attendance when England take on Bulgaria.
FARE's Pavel Klymenko has been following progress in the region as the network's Eastern Europe development officer. Talking to DW, he says that, while it's rare for FARE to confirm the attendance of their observers, they felt it was necessary in this case for security reasons. "It would be silly to deny it in such circumstances,” he says.
Among the issues documented in Bulgaria is the use of neo-Nazi symbols by ultra groups in both club and international football. Klymenko, however, warns against assuming the use of such symbols is for provocation purposes only. "We're talking about actual Nazis here, but generalizing and saying the whole country is racist would be incorrect,” said Klymenko.
In regards to the game, he has high hopes of it passing without incident, but is ready for all scenarios. "We hope the attention will result in the match being free of racist incidents,” Klymenko concluded. "But we're afraid the issues aren't going anywhere anytime soon.”