If you want to feel good about Britain right now, or at least England, where do you look? Not to our parliament, in the latter stages of its descent into something close to chaos, the green spaces around the Palace of Westminster slowly being churned into mud by ceaseless protests. And there is little comfort to be had turning to our prime minister, a man so renowned for dishonesty that the likelihood that he will break his word is baked into the political calculations of his opponents.
Across the world, our reputation as a serious-minded, pragmatic (even perfidious) nation is in tatters and our former sense of ourselves as a reasonable, level-headed, no-nonsense people is difficult to sustain after the past three and half years of political turmoil.
One place we could look last week for signs of the seriousness and professionalism for which we were once known was a stadium in Bulgaria. There, a group of twentysomething players and their manager stood huddled together, under the floodlights, facing what their manager later described as an “impossible situation”.
If you want leadership, it was there in abundance. Not just in the calm thoughtfulness of Gareth Southgate, but in Tyrone Mings, the 26-year-old whose England debut came on the night he and his teammates were subjected to torrents of racist abuse.
It came from sections of the Bulgarian fans who, clustered together – many dressed in black, their faces half concealed by hoods – made monkey chants and gave Nazi salutes. Despite the grimness of it all, despite the two stoppages in the first half and the sheer awful predictability of it all, Mings and his teammates went on to defeat Bulgaria 6-0 and navigate the impossibility of the night.
That the England team represents the best of the nation shows not just how much they have risen under Southgate’s management, but how much the England they represent has fallen. For decades, we were regarded as a consistent and reliable nation with an inconsistent and unreliable football team. Now the opposite is true.
Many commentators wrote of how England’s players had shown “dignity”, played through their torment and “let their feet do the talking”. But it is not the job of England’s players to lead by example in the face of racist abuse. The job of stamping out racism in European football falls to Uefa, an institution that had almost as bad a night as the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU).
Uefa’s three-step protocol for dealing with racism from supporters, although followed by the England players and officials, was shown in Sofia to be deeply flawed. The first step is for the team subjected to abuse to report it to the referee, who then arranges for a stadium announcement to be made requesting that the chanting stop.
Balakov was gaslighting England’s black players, calling their honesty into question, defending the indefensible
The illogicality and seemingly wilful naivety of that part of the protocol was highlighted by the sports psychologist Dr Peter Olusoga (he’s my younger brother), who questioned whether “politely asking racist thugs if perhaps they might consider not being racist, you know, if it’s not too much trouble” is a flawed approach. “Imagine in any other job hearing, ‘Yeah, so I know that racists are screaming at you while you’re trying to work, but are you OK to keep working?’”
Yet the overt racism that echoed around the stadium is only part of the story. This was also about structural racism: forms of prejudice in which black people are told that their own lived experiences are merely interpretations or opinions. Mings told an interviewer that the racist chants had begun during the warm-up, before kick-off. Yet even after the match, the Bulgaria manager, Krasimir Balakov, claimed that he “didn’t hear anything”. Worse, he demanded that before any action is taken the racism that England’s players had suffered had to be “proved to be true”.
Balakov was not just being disingenuous, he was gaslighting England’s black players, calling their honesty and professionalism into question, defending the indefensible, minimising what had happened and helping to drag football into the post-truth era.
Balakov’s resignation on Friday, which followed that of the president of the BFU, Borislav Mikhailov, might be taken as signs that last week’s events have finally stunned the Bulgarians into action. Yet what happened on Monday was both predictable and widely predicted. There had been racist chanting directed against England players in the same stadium eight years ago during a European Championship qualifier. Any football authority serious about combating racism would have taken action before the match, not after.
On Tuesday, Boris Johnson condemned on Twitter what he called the “vile racism we saw and heard last night”, saying it had “no place in football or anywhere else”. But this support arrives from a prime minister who, in 2002, when many of England’s black players were infants, described black children as “piccaninnies”, the same term Enoch Powell deployed in his “rivers of blood” speech.
The contrast between the leadership displayed by the England team and the lack of leadership in politics was further demonstrated during the post-match press conference. There, the England manager could have done the easy thing – condemned the Bulgarian fans and then soaked up the glory of a victory achieved under the most difficult of conditions. Southgate instead showed what leadership looks like. Diverting the attention away from himself and on to his players (as he consistently does), he took the path of most resistance, and invited the English game to look at itself in the mirror. “Sadly, my players, because of their experiences in our own country, are hardened to racism,” he said. “I don’t know what that says about our society, but that’s the reality.”