Bulgaria Thrashed, but It’s England Hit for Six
Gareth Southgate’s side eased past Bulgaria with a comprehensive win in Sofia. But this was a game halted twice because of racist behaviour in the stands.
In need of a good display after a wretched performance on Friday, England lined up for this one with much-changed personnel. Kieran Trippier retained his place at right-back, while there was a debut for Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings, replacing the out-of-form Michael Keane at centre-back. Ben Chilwell was in because of Danny Rose’s suspension, with Ross Barkley, Marcus Rashford and Harry Winks also introduced.
Playing in red for the first time since the World Cup, England looked hungry for their customary early goal. On seven minutes, Marcus Rashford delivered.
Ross Barkley nipped in well to claim a loose ball, playing Rashford in wide on the left. The Manchester United forward carried the ball to the byline, cutting back onto his right to beat his man. His next move was to hammer the ball into the net from long range on the angle.
Goalkeeper, Plamen Iliev was nowhere near it. Emphatic from a young player subject to such hurtful abuse over his form in recent months. England led almost immediately.
But at a similar point in the match, Gareth Southgate and Tyrone Mings became aware of racist chants and boos from certain sections of the Bulgarian support. UEFA representatives and the Fourth Official were made aware right away.
The very next piece of on-field action came from Bulgaria’s talismanic captain, Ivelin Popov. His precise long shot was heading into the bottom corner, but for Jordan Pickford’s smart stop.
In the 20th minute, Raheem Sterling moved inside with the ball, playing a deft one-two with Harry Kane and receiving the ball back one-on-one with the keeper. He squared unselfishly, allowing Ross Barkley to tap home and, with it, double England’s lead on the night and on their travels.
The truly unsavoury scenes started to further unravel 27 minutes in, when the referee stopped play. There were lengthy discussions between UEFA officials, match officials, players and coaches about booing taking place across the stadium.
Ironically, the Vasil Levski Stadium was partially closed on the night, due to racist chants that had occurred in a previous international back in June. In addition, the referee, Ivan Bebek, was actually born in Rijeka, where England played Croatia behind closed doors last October (due to previous incidents regarding racism). Bebek did a brilliant job; in control throughout and needing to be, too.
UEFA protocol was strictly and efficiently followed as an announcement was made on the loudspeaker. England players kept calm, composed and professional. The game resumed; Europe watched on.
Half-an-hour had passed when England notched a third. Harry Winks played a delightful long pass forward for Kieran Trippier, who took it in his stride well. He knocked the ball back for Kane. England’s captain crossed perfectly for Barkley, ghosting in to head straight through Iliev.
Gareth Southgate was back amongst the action just before first-half stoppage-time, communicating with the referee. Step Two of the UEFA Racism Protocol was triggered. The next step would have been abandonment of the match. This really was revolutionary stuff.
Out of the stadium went hundreds of darkly dressed men – swearing and laughing at UEFA’s anti-racism banners on their way. They weren’t welcome at this football match.
“I heard examples of appalling racist chanting.”Greg Clarke, FA Chairman
England’s players looked more focused than ever, determined to make the most of six added minutes. Harry Kane led a swift England counter, playing in Trippier who gave it back with Kane now bearing down on goal.
Spurs’ main man is a much better provider than he often gets credit for. He tucked the ball back efficiently for Raheem Sterling to finish easily. Manchester City’s scintillating winger had responded to targeted racism in what Southgate describes as “the best way”; making an impact and scoring a goal.
Half-time in England’s dressing room ended up involving a long conversation about whether or not to complete the match. They decided they would.
It was professional from England on every level. The Three Lions were doing their bit both on and off the pitch. UEFA were investigating; England were comfortably winning.
Proceedings, politically at least, improved in the second half. The troublemakers had left, and the football seemed to be shouting loudest now.
England maintained a ruthless tempo early on. A close-range Sterling miss was sandwiched by two good saves by Plamen Iliev, who denied Harry Kane on both occasions.
The fifth goal of the night came all the way from Jordan Pickford’s exceptional, low, swinging pass into the midfield. Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson and Sterling were all involved in a quick manoeuvre that caught Bulgaria out.
Kane dribbled towards the box, constantly checking the position of the advanced Raheem Sterling. The eventual pass was typically precise, allowing an ice-cool Sterling to stroke the ball into the net.
Goals of real quality were going in left, right, and centre on a night where equality within the game had become the wider goal.
With a brace each, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling made way for Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho. England’s first goalscorer, Marcus Rashford, soon followed suit, replaced by Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson.
After 82 minutes, Harry Kane’s thus far goalless night was continuing to get away from him as he missed yet another chance – crashing the post with a fine strike from distance.
However, good things come to those who wait. Harry Kane certainly waited, but on 85 minutes his personal deadlock was emphatically broken. Left-back Ben Chilwell battled well in the middle, allowing Kane to grab the ball and run at the defence.
In one audacious move, he dropped his shoulder, nutmegged Georgi Terziev and ran through to slot the ball past Iliev. It was his best show of quality, on a night where he also claimed three assists.
Substitutes Sancho and Wilson both missed presentable opportunities in stoppage-time, but the game was won, and the story had been written.
This was a match that will hopefully be remembered for the wrong reasons. UEFA must use this fixture as a defining moment, an example of how good systems can put an end to discriminatory behaviour at football matches.
The Three Lions dealt with everything thrown in their path. On a night that all-but made up for their result on Friday, England beat Bulgaria 6-0 and addressed racism with the utmost integrity and diligence.