‘Killing’ Two Birds with One Nazi Salute: the Racism Outburst at the Bulgaria – England Match
Modern day acts of racism are especially perplexing and worrying given Bulgaria’s own tradition of tolerance, fighting for freedom, and sympathy for the oppressed.
The period since 2008 has seen a bunch of rather decent feature films and TV series emerge in my native Bulgaria.
Some of them have been especially notable for a simple fact – their scriptwriters would often incorporate in them real-life cases of top-level organized crime, corruption, abuses, embezzlement, and backstage dealings without even bothering to change any details other than the names of the stakeholders.
They would just narrate some of the nasty stuff going on in Bulgarian politics and public life as a way of covertly exposing them while making good TV without having to rack their brains to come up with semi-fictional stories of their own.
It’s stuff that those scriptwriters know for sure has been happening in real, and that the law enforcement and judiciary wouldn’t really deal with.
It is hard to say how much the Bulgarian viewers have gotten their message but I have – having become aware of lots and lots of the same stuff during my work as a journalist since 2008.
In one of those taken-directly-from-real-life” episodes in a hit Bulgarian TV series from a few years ago, the grey eminence of an unnamed political party pulls over his limo near the national stadium in Sofia, has the leader of a group of football (soccer for the American readers) hooligans get in, hands him a wad of cash, and “orders” (as in “buys”, not “commands”) an outburst of ethnic violence. The soccer hooligans’ boss then sets out on his mission with a consider-it-done attitude, and an air of nationalist pride all over him.
After all, he is about to kill two birds with one stone (most probably, even with literal stones) – he’s being a great “nationalist” (the way he understands it) while also getting paid for it.
The thoughts that he is (or about to become) a criminal, a disgraced servant in disgustingly dirty backstage political games, and actually a destroyer of his own nation’s fortunes (the opposite of what a “nationalist” should be, theoretically) never cross his simplistic mind.
The ethnic tension gets stirred, the public is distracted from the political issues of the day, the corrupt politicians are happy, and so are the soccer hooligans. Everybody wins. Except for the society as such, the nation, and whatever decent and honest people are still left out there.
In the 2020 European Championship Qualifying match in Sofia on Monday (in which England’s national team beat the hosts 6:0), a group of some 30 to 50 black-clad “fans” disgraced Bulgaria beyond imagination, while demonstrating their lows levels of intelligence and high levels of bigotry and/or corruptibility.
The fans in question staged a very overt display of racism, apparently directed at the black players in England’s national team, by making Nazi salutes and monkey noises, and then left the stadium in an organized fashion before the end of the first half.
What is to be made of that rather bizarre occurrence?
The unconditional denouncing of such an apparent showcasing of racism is of the utmost importance. There is no way even the slightest signal of tolerance to such shameful acts can ever be conveyed. It’s the boundary of humanity whose crossing would signify the end of everything.
Since world history, education, development, hard science, and soft common sense have long ago demonstrated that all humans are the same (take that any way you like), such outbursts of racism are indeed deeply insulting – except that they are insulting to all humans, not just those of a certain race. All humans with any humanity in them. That is that, it doesn’t work any other way.
In the case of the England – Bulgaria football match in Sofia, however, condemning racism isn’t enough. Apart from the obvious – the racist sentiments – there are also lots and lots of other layers to that story, mostly having to do with local and international politics.
Many of them can be guessed from the film episode described at the beginning of this article.
To start with, professional football in post-communist Bulgaria has been a heavily corrupt affair, probably entirely controlled by organized crime with ties to the ruling oligarchy. I spoke about this in a widely-cited interview (in German) for the Swiss daily Neue Zuricher Zeitung back in 2012 (and I have also analyzed that state of affairs in my book “Ugly Bargain: How the EU and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together”).
The seemingly little sportsmanship left in the game, and the wider chaos in the post-communist society have translated into some extreme factions of the soccer fan clubs – although to be fair, whatever extremists there might be among those in Bulgaria, they certainly pale in comparison to the infamous English soccer hooligans.
In any case, there has been a shameful development in recent decades of racist sentiments becoming present among such groupings. And that’s in Bulgaria, whose entire modern state and society was built on the philosophy of freedom, tolerance and human rights at the end of the 19th century, after its liberation from the five centuries of oppression in the Ottoman Empire, a period known as the Ottoman Yoke.
“Any slave, whatever their gender, faith, or ethnicity may be, becomes free when they set foot on Bulgarian soil,” proclaimed Bulgaria’s Tarnovo Constitution of 1879.
That spirit of tolerance and compassion for those who had been under oppression was epitomized during World War II by the rescue of nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from the Nazi Holocaust from Bulgaria proper even though the country was technically allied with Germany, by finding ways to prevent their deportation to death camps.
Given that the Bulgarian nation takes pride in the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust – the largest such rescue in all of Europe – it is easy to understand how (oxy)moronic, stupefying, and disheartening any displays of racism or anti-Semitism are today.
So apparently there is a problem in Bulgaria in that regard – but it is probably not bigger or any different from the same kind of a grave problem in many other societies around the globe. That doesn’t mean it should be disparaged – to the contrary, tackling it is an urgent must, all the more so given Bulgaria’s own history of fighting for freedom and embracing tolerance once that freedom was achieved.
What’s especially notable about the racist outburst displayed at the England – Bulgaria football match is precisely its extremely overt character, and the fact that it appears to have been well-organized – a group of people wearing the same clothing, moving together, making the same gestures and noises, and leaving early.
This whole setup has given grounds for speculations that the racism display had been staged by someone – by various possible foreign factors in order to harm Bulgaria, by domestic factors in order to harm the chairman of the Bulgarian Football Union Borislav Mihaylov (a celebrated goalkeeper from the 1994 World Cup in the USA), who has now resigned, or even to harm Bulgaria’s murky Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, by someone from the UK in order to eclipse the hooliganism of the English soccer hooligans, or even by a British tabloid newspaper in order to score some “journalistic” hits.
In that last scenario, it is noted that the UK media have already become aware of racist displays by Bulgarian football fans during matches between Bulgarian and British football clubs, and that UK photo reporters present during the match in Sofia had been prepared to photograph and film the audience, and were far less interested in the game or the players.
In other words, the display of racism could be a provocation putting a really nasty stain on Bulgaria. Could be. Because of its internal divisions and willingness of part of its population to succumb to the influence of foreign powers, the weakness of its institutions, and its officials’ low awareness of problems such as racism, Bulgaria is a very, very easy target for anybody wishing to stir some international media turmoil.
When I was a college student in the US, one of my history professors told me, jokingly, that in every international scandal, there is a Bulgarian involved. (He was referring to stuff such as the setting fire to the German Reichstag in 1933 and the ensuing Leipzig Trial, the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in 1981, etc. – although, to be fair such episodes the Bulgarians involved in such cases were associated with the former communist regime, a far better explanation of their involvement than their being “Bulgarian”.)
All of Eastern Europe, Bulgaria featuring very prominently, have been a favorite target of the British tabloids for decades now when the UK media want to dish out some public resentment, and in a politically correct fashion at that.
So a provocation for the Bulgaria – England match should not be ruled out – and might very well be very real.
That doesn’t mean racism isn’t alarmingly present.
As in the episode described at the start, those who engaged in that disgraceful behavior during the game in Sofia, would not be averse to being bribed to display their true colors. They would make cash while presenting themselves, in their twisted minds, as great “patriots”, “nationalists”, “defenders of the Aryan race”, you name it.
Whether they were put up to it, or somehow came up with that highly overt behavior on their own, it is certain that this racism is for real, and warrants urgent measures on part of both the authorities and the Bulgarian society at large.
Of course, it is paradoxical how much such individuals are hurting Bulgaria – in case they do consider themselves Bulgarian “patriots” or “nationalists”.
A “nationalist” (in the positive sense of that word when it equals a “patriot”) or a “patriot” is supposed to be fair, decent, honest, and to have moral integrity. They aren’t supposed to be hateful of others. Not just because that’s how lots and lots of “beloved” nations have been destroyed but because it is morally wrong. A patriot is also supposed to be intelligent, and failing to understand that all humans are the same, not only equal but the same, or that what the Nazis did was utterly horrific, conveys exactly the opposite quality.
Other than racism being very real, Bulgaria having been tarnished with a huge stain, and a provocation conspiracy being quite plausible, the key takeaway from the outburst at the Bulgaria – England Euro qualifier should be different.
If a country such as Bulgaria to be affect by such sentiments to whatever degree – given its at least recognizable tradition of tolerance (and the fact that it has a very small number of black people) – that means there’s a global problem of hatred in and of itself spreading faster than it can be figured out exactly why.
Even as Bulgaria is one of the more peculiar member states of the European Union, such sorry occurrences by far shouldn’t be dismissed as just resulting from that peculiarity. That would be a very dear mistake.
(Banner image: Video grab from Twitter)