• 21st October 2019

Bulgarian Football Racism: Simply unacceptable but what can be done?

The world of sport has been relatively slow in opening itself up to change in relation to compliance and speaking up. As recent incidents demonstrate there needs to be significant improvements in how organisations in this sector operate in order to challenge the behaviour of stakeholders both on and off the field of play. At Safecall we have various clients who are eager to improve the culture within their organisations, and ultimately the sector in which they operate and represent.

Here Fulcrum Chambers, an innovative legal advisory and consultancy business share their insight into racism within football.

Bulgarian Football Racism: Simply unacceptable but what can be done?

It was disgusting.”[1] These were the words of Jordan Henderson, a senior member of the England Football team, after England’s recent 6-0 win against Bulgaria when describing the racist abuse suffered by many of his teammates in the fixture. Many in the lead up to the game were concerned about the likelihood of racist abuse being hurled towards the England team during this fixture. Sadly, many thought it was more a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. That in itself is desperately disappointing but now that it has actually happened this article will explore what the relevant governing body can do to ensure at the least that the Bulgarian Football Union (‘BFU’) is punished but also to prevent it happening again. It is noteworthy from the outset of this piece that the BFU has now been charged amongst other matters with “Racist behaviour – Art.14 of the EUFA Disciplinary Regulations (DR)[2] in relation to this fixture.

The Regulations

The UEFA European Qualifiers 2020 qualifiers are governed by the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations (Edition 2019) (‘the Regulations’) which state at Article 2(3) “[t]hese regulations apply to every match and competition organised by UEFA.[3] Article 3 sets out who these regulations apply to. Importantly for the purposes of this article it states at Article 3(a), “all member associations and their officials.” Hence why the BFU would be caught by the Regulations.

Article 14 of the Regulations address racism and other discriminatory conduct. In relation to a member association’s supporters, if they engage in racist behaviour, Article 14(2) notes that the relevant association will be punished with a “minimum of a partial stadium closure.” In cases where a member association reoffends, they face the following according to Article 14(3):

  1. a second offence is punished with one match played behind closed doors and a fine of €50,000;
  2. any subsequent offence is punished with more than one match behind closed doors, a stadium closure, the forfeiting of a match, the deduction of points and/or disqualification from the competition.

Article 14(4) notes that that additional disciplinary measures on the relevant member association may be imposed should a case so require it, which includes, “the playing of one or more matches behind closed doors, a stadium closure, the forfeiting of a match, the deduction of points and/or disqualification from the competition.” Finally, Article 14 concludes by stating that these disciplinary measures, “may be combined with specific directives aimed at tackling such conduct.

This is not the first time that the BFU has faced such a racism charge. On 19 July 2019 they were sanctioned on the back of racist abuse in their fixture against Kosovo on the 10 June 2019 and for the same in their match against the Czech Republic on 7 June 2019. In summary the combined sanctions for both those incidents were as follows:

  • Partial closure of their stadium for the match against England on the 14 October 2019. A sector comprising of 5000 seats must be closed.
  • Partial closure of their stadium for the match against the Czech Republic on 17 November 2019. A sector comprising of 3000 seats must be closed.
  • To display in both the abovementioned fixtures in the relevant closed sector a banner with the wording, “#EqualGame”, with the UEFA logo on it.

Comments

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that given the BFU has as recently as July 2019 been punished for previous racist behaviour by their fans, that whatever punishment was handed down for that behaviour has had little impact, if any, on those involved.

Looking at the possible sanctions available to UEFA, it is respectfully noted that few of them are likely to have any bite. The proposed fine in modern football times is negligible. Matches behind closed doors and partial closure of stadiums seem to be the go-to punishment for UEFA yet clearly have little impact in actually preventing reoffending (the current BFU case being a prime example). Directives such as ordering a country to display a banner such as “#EqualGame” at the relevant fixtures are admirable but hardly seem like a punishment.

However, there are some options which UEFA have available to them which almost certainly will have an impact, namely points deductions and disqualification from tournaments. Such punishments raise the stakes. They are far more likely to send out a stern message that such behaviour is simply unacceptable. Furthermore, in today’s football, tournament success is your currency. Having points deducted or being disqualified from a tournament is potentially catastrophic for a nation in terms of their footballing development and as a consequence such a punishment is likely to really focus the minds of the relevant football unions/associations in terms of ensuring their fans behave. Who knows, if a football association/union knew such a punishment was expected if their fans were found to be racist, they themselves are surely more likely to take preventative action to ensure it does not happen. The stakes are too high not to do so.

Interestingly the fallout from the fixture has already cost the president of the BFU, Borislav Mihaylov, his job. He resigned after the Bulgaria Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov, called on him to quit after the racist abuse of the England players.[4] Furthermore, a number of supporters have subsequently been arrested in relation to the match.[5] These are positive moves which go above and beyond the remit of the UEFA sanctions. It is arguable that UEFA may well take such actions into consideration when deciding what punishment the BFU should face, should the BFU be found guilty of the relevant charges.

Conclusion

There is obviously a balancing act. UEFA will be keen not to punish a whole football loving country for the hideous behaviour of a few of their supporters. Furthermore, in some countries there might be underlying political currents which unfortunately come to a head or are expressed at football matches, which in fairness to UEFA is a problem that is not their responsibility alone. However, that argument can only go so far when such behaviour is repeated so close to the previous incident(s) at events organised by or run by UEFA. It may well be the case that the time has come for “zero tolerance” and that being exemplified by immediate banning of those nations from the relevant tournament that they are involved in when their fans engage in such hideous behaviour. Maybe only then will football be able to realistically stamp racism out of the game.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/50064013

[2] https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/disciplinary/#

Note, they have also been charged with the following:

- Throwing of objects - Art. 16 (2) (b) DR
- Disruption of national anthem - Art. 16 (2) (g) DR
- Replays on giant screen - Art. 42 of the UEFA Safety and Security Regulations

It should also be noted that the English Football Association was charged with the following:

- Disruption of national anthem - Art. 16 (2) DR
- Insufficient number of travelling stewards - Art. 24 (2) of the UEFA Safety and Security Regulations

[3]https://www.uefa.com/MultimediaFiles/Download/Regulations/uefaorg/UEFACompDisCases/02/60/83/56/2608356_DOWNLOAD.pdf

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/50054475

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/50066016