Bulgaria punishment for soccer fan racism angers activists
GENEVA (AP) — Bulgaria was punished Tuesday for the Nazi salutes and racist chanting of its soccer fans with an order to play a European Championship qualifying game in an empty stadium, although the team avoided expulsion from the competition.
The punishment was criticized by anti-discrimination groups, who said it was too lenient.
UEFA had the option to remove Bulgaria from the Euro 2020 playoffs in March, after the incidents in Sofia at a qualifier against England this month.
"We are disappointed that Bulgaria will not be expelled from the Euro 2020 qualifying competition given their previous record, and obvious inability to deal with the problems they face," said the Fare group, UEFA's anti-racism partner which flags high-risk games for monitoring.
Anti-racism organization Kick It Out said it was "disheartened, but not surprised" by the ruling and urged UEFA to rethink a process it said produced sanctions which did not work.
"In our view, they have missed an opportunity to send an uncompromising message on racism and discrimination," the London-based body said.
Bulgaria fans made Nazi salutes and targeted monkey noises at England's black players during a 6-0 loss two weeks ago. The game was twice stopped by the referee following UEFA guidelines to address discrimination.
The UEFA disciplinary panel also put Bulgaria on probation for two years, which should include most of the 2022 World Cup qualifying program. A repeat offense will trigger a stadium closure for a second competitive game.
The Bulgarian soccer federation was fined 85,000 euros ($94,000), including the mandated 50,000 euros ($55,500) for a second charge of racist behavior. A charge of fans throwing objects was also proven.
Although the England game was the third time Bulgaria fans were guilty of racist behavior this year, the previous incidents at back-to-back Euro 2020 qualifiers in June were judged together in July.
UEFA's disciplinary code states a team will be punished for a second offense with "one match played behind closed doors and a fine of 50,000 euros."
A third offense "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," according to UEFA rules.
The soccer players' union in England suggested a lack of ethnic representation among the 10 men on the UEFA disciplinary committee "will influence the way in which racist incidents are dealt with."
"Diversity on the pitch must be reflected at every level of the game, not just on the field of play," the Professional Footballers' Association said.
The verdict could be challenged at UEFA's appeals committee by independent disciplinary inspectors who worked on the case if they decide it was too lenient.
Fare said it "will be in touch with UEFA to explore options and maintain that Bulgaria and others in the same situation fundamentally reappraise how they deal with racism."
Bulgaria's next home game is against the Czech Republic on Nov. 17.
The stadium closure will likely cost the national soccer body at least 100,000 euros ($110,000) in lost revenue. Bulgaria drew about 5,000 fans for home games against Kosovo and Montenegro, then more than 17,000 to see England.
Bulgaria is last in Group A with no chance to advance to Euro 2020 by finishing in the top two places.
However, the sanctions do not affect Bulgaria's second chance to reach the final tournament from the playoffs in March. Potential opponents in the first round of the playoffs include Iceland and Scotland.
Turmoil in Bulgaria since the game led to soccer federation president Borislav Mihailov and national team coach Krasimir Balakov — players on the 1994 World Cup semifinalist team — being ousted.
A UEFA charge of Bulgaria fans causing disturbance during the national anthem for England accounted for 10,000 euros ($11,100) of the 85,000 euros ($94,000) fine.
The English Football Association was fined 5,000 euros ($5,500) for a similar charge.