England: When Sterling scored, Budapest was scarred by ugly hatred – DOMINIC KING on embarrassing scenes
You get a feeling when a storm is coming. In the hours before the kick-off of travel to Eastern Europe, it’s usually easy to gauge which direction the night will go.
All the metaphorical sirens flashed in Podgorica, in March 2019. It’s only a small capital, but it felt like every officer in Montenegro had been called up and outfitted in combat gear to guard the European Championship qualifiers.
There was no physical violence, but racism was everywhere and football was never at the top of the agenda that night. Danny Rose, the England left-back, was pelted with lighters and assaulted. Raheem Sterling and Callum Hudson-Odoi, scorers in a 5-1 win, were subjected to monkey chants.
Raheem Sterling was racially abused during England’s win over Hungary on Thursday
On to Sofia, seven months later. Sometimes you arrive in stadiums and think, perhaps naively, that it won’t be as bad as some of the horror stories you’ve heard about embarrassing incidents in the past – Bulgaria was, unfortunately, even worse.
Some seats close to the press room had swastika stickers on them, local residents argued with the traveling media and claimed that our interrogation of the head coach had somehow led to Tyrone Mings, on his debut, Marcus Rashford and Sterling. were abused by Bulgarian Ultras.
The sinister edge was not visible in Budapest. This beautiful, vibrant city was welcoming and the fantastic Puskas Arena looked every inch like the kind of stadium you could think of as a Champions League final.
But it should never, ever have that honor. Not after the eruption that, again, took the story away from football.
For 45 minutes all seemed to be going well, save for the booing and shouting that greeted England’s decision to take the knee. We were prepared for that, but it didn’t feel like anything stuck.
Still, when England players got to their knees in Middlesbrough in June, the cheers were even more shocking because it came from those who are supposed to love them.
The mood in the stadium changed as Sterling gave England the lead in the second half
A flare was thrown after England’s third goal, while coins were also thrown on the pitch
But what brought Budapest to Podgorica and Sofia was the way the mood changed after Sterling scored.
The poison was startling. Cups of beer poured down from all sides. There were 27 scattered around Sterling as he got up. There was not one attempt by police or stewards to enter the crowd to try to find those responsible. The Carpathian Brigade, as the Ultras are called, could do whatever they wanted.
The whoops also took on a different character, screeching as if they were offended that a black player had dealt a massive blow. Once England had led the way, it was once again clear that their football would be relegated from the top of the agenda, when it deserved to be lauded to the hills.
Mason Mount condemned the abuse England’s stars faced during the match
“It’s a shame how it keeps happening,” said Mason Mount. “Consequences are needed and the FA will talk to FIFA about it and hopefully they will hand out suspensions. It must stop. We need to get this out of football.”
Too right. How can an 18-year-old like Jude Bellingham be treated with such contempt in 2021? Read Juliette Ferrington’s report on what the Borussia Dortmund midfielder has been through and see if you think the authorities are doing enough to protect players. For 30 minutes what happened in the stadium was breathtaking.
The glow that flashed past Luke Shaw after he lighted Harry Maguire would have sent him to the hospital if it had hit him—the coins aimed at Gareth Southgate, John Stones, and Harry Kane could have blinded them.
“As soon as we scored and what happened in the corner flag, you could tell by the atmosphere that something was going to be thrown or something was going to happen,” Mount agreed.
“Luckily no one got hurt or anything. When the whole stadium is against us, we grow.’
They did and it was to their credit. Yet the dominant theme was racism and Southgate was once again thrown into the middle of a storm and had to speak like a statesman.
When he first handed over this grenade in Podgorica, he was visibly shocked. On Thursday he was deeply upset again, but when you see him now dealing with the topic of racism, he just looks numb because he must feel that his many fine words seem in vain.
We could clamor for stadium closures and condemn UEFA and FIFA for their ridiculous efforts to confront this scourge, but the ghost went back to something the England head coach said in Podgorica, sitting upright on a podium.
Gareth Southgate said sanctions against countries only make sense if they lead to education
“Sanctions only make sense if they lead to education,” he said at the time. “Sanctions are worthless if there is nothing else to train people.”
Unfortunately, some people are no longer educated. Those who throw beer and abuse – and yes, some England fans are included in this – will never change their ways and for the foreseeable future these journeys will always have the potential for trouble.
However, taking the plunge, and the message it sends, will have an impact on generations to come. We must pray that they are the ones who never experience such nights.