James Shield's Sheffield United Column: If The Blades signed this brave player, I certainly wouldn't argue

Sheffield United don't really need an attacking midfielder. Someone capable of running from box to box - and challenging John Lundstram - is more of a requirement during January's transfer window.

Thursday, 17th October 2019, 3:03 pm
Updated Thursday, 17th October 2019, 4:07 pm
Bulgaria fans in the stands during the UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying match at the Vasil Levski National Stadium: Nick Potts/PA Wire.
Bulgaria fans in the stands during the UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying match at the Vasil Levski National Stadium: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

But I still wouldn’t argue if they signed Ivelin Popov. Because, unlike some of his team mates and even his manager, the Bulgaria captain clearly has the character and forceful personality necessary to become a member of Chris Wilder's squad.

It was on Monday evening, when football in his country descended into a racist cesspit, that Popov demonstrated his moral-fibre. It has not always been in evidence. This, after all, was a player who once caused a coach crash by throwing a bottle at the driver and was once banned from representing his country for humiliating a masseur. But accepting few people are angels and that most of us have done pretty stupid things in the past, Popov is clearly someone prepared to stand up and be counted. Because, in the absence of any support from the pathetic and obviously stone deaf Krasimir Balakov, he took it upon himself to remonstrate with the idiots abusing England's black players during the Euro 2020 qualifier in Sofia. And make no bones about it, that took guts.

I say 'idiots' because that, quite clearly, is what those responsible are. Dunces oblivious to the history of their country rather than the proud patriots they probably think they are. Yes, under the primeministership of Bogdan Filov, Bulgaria joined the Axis powers during World War Two following a period of politically convenient neutrality. But they later joined the Allies after the Fatherland Front, a movement comprised of various different parties, completed a successful coup d'état. A resistance movement, led by a force of brave partisans, had earlier performed a number of attacks on the German army. And you can bet your bottom lev that a number of those nazi saluting fools inside the Vasil Levski Stadium are related to those who fought Hitler's troops. Their elderly relatives, many of whose comrades ended-up being shipped to concentration camps, will be so, so proud.

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Bulgaria's Ivelin Popov (left): Niall Carson/PA Wire.

Earlier this week, given that United's Dean Henderson was a member of the Three Lions squad which had travelled to south-east Europe, Wilder found himself being questioned on the matter at a media conference ostensibly designed to discuss next week's Premier League fixture against Arsenal. His stance, although he insisted he would have supported them no matter what, was that Gareth Southgate's players had been right to complete a fixture which had been suspended twice because of the bile spewing forth from the stands.

Intriguingly, and perhaps controversially given people's understandable aversion to mixing politics and sport, he then called for governments to become more involved in the fight to combat racism. That time has come, and to their credit Bulgaria's own quickly responded with vigour. But UEFA and its own member associations must first take the lead, rather than sitting back and leaving professional sportsmen and women to decide what constitutes an acceptable reaction in such circumstances.

England is not immune to the issues which have seen Bulgaria - a proud and talented footballing nation built by Slavs, Byzantines, Bulgars and Thracians - become a pariah state in the eyes of many. Make no mistake about it, England's squad would have been perfectly justified in walking off and immediately returning home rather than seeing the contest through. After all, the pitch is a footballer's place of work. And Bulgaria's national assembly have subscribed to the Protection of Discrimination Act, which supposedly prohibits all forms of bigotry. The trouble is - and this highlights the weakness of UEFA's position - there would then have been a debate about whether they should forfeit the points. Or if the qualifier should have been declared null and void.

It is a ridiculous position to be in. But a relatively simple one to solve. Nobody wants to sanitise the sport or make it impossible to shout and swear. However, if there is widespread abuse - referring to a person's colour, creed, sexuality or religion - during any match, and the necessary evidence to confirm it - then the club or country whose supporters are guilty should immediately be declared the losers. Yes, that is unfair on the majority of right-minded individuals. But, as Popov demonstrated, sometimes you need to take a stand.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
England fans in the stands as the England bench observe the anthems: Nick Potts/PA Wire.