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 on 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 soccer, 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 soccer. 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.