“Bulgaria and racism. The two go hand-in-hand,” Steffan Stefanov told The Guardian two days after England’s players suffered racial abuse from Bulgarian fans during the Euro2020 qualifier in Sofia, back in October 2019.
“It’s our reality, we live it every day,” said Stefanov, a Roma tax driver in Bulgaria’s capital city. “I’m sorry for the England players who were targeted but, in truth, this was pretty minor for us.”
While racist abuse of players attracts great attention – as it has recently done in England after the Euro 2020 finals – within countries such as Bulgaria it is the Roma who are the principal targets, even though they make up just under 5% of the population.
The segregation of Roma people is blatant in many areas of life across the European continent, including schooling, housing, work and healthcare.
In sport, anti-Roma discrimination and segregation is also strong. There have been numerous anti-Roma incidents in professional football, perpetrated by players and managers, as well as anti-Roma hatred fomented by “ultra” supporters and discrimination at amateur level. Romaaccess to sport is below average in many countries, too.
In Slovakia, a report published in 2011 by the Institute for Sociology of the Slovak Academy of SciencesBratislava, revealed that Roma households lack resources to pursue sport and recreational activities.
Combined with often poor public transport and problems getting to school excluded most Roma children from leisure activities, it said at the time.
In Spain, where it is estimated that between 1-2% of the total population is Roma, 2013 figures showed that 72% of the Roma population lived in a situation of exclusion.
Like in Slovakia, Roma youth in Spain and Portugal face similar challenges that have a negative impact on their participation in sport.
The lack of local clubs in rural areas and poorer neighbourhoods, where the Roma often live, and the lack of sport programmes targeting Roma children and youth, add to their economic and cultural challenges.
To counter that, a Barcelona-based Roma organisation, Federació d’Associacions Gitanes de Catalunya (FAGiC),has worked with Roma children across the region through an education and football programme, using the sport to encourage school attendance and good behaviour.
“FAGiC knows that football is very important to Roma children and we know that they can’t play because of external factors, so we created a project where children can practise sport as a reward if they commit to go to school and study,” said Annabel Carbello from FAGiC.
“It is estimated that 10-12 million people living in Europe are Roma. As Europe’s largest minority group, their representation across football should be equally visible,” added the Fare network, an umbrella organisation that brings together individuals and organisations to combat inequality in football and usessport as a means for social change.
“Football’s empowering qualities and inclusive values go beyond the playing field and are propelled across all areas of life. Football, as the most popular sport in the world, should be accessible to all.”Across Europe, of course, the Roma have suffered tremendous prejudice.
In Bulgaria, three right-wing populist parties have ruled in coalition as the “United Patriots”. One of the three, theBulgarian National Movement, has a manifesto calling for the creation of “reservations” for Roma, based on the model used for Native Americans, claiming that they could become “tourist attractions”.
Following violence between Bulgarian Roma and non-Roma in 2019, the party’s leader (and deputy prime minister) Krasimir Karakachanov said: “The truth is that we need to undertake a complete programme for a solution to the Gypsy problem. His predecessor as deputy prime minister, Valeri Simeonov, had described the Roma as “arrogant, presumptuous and ferocious humanoids”. He was also chair of Bulgaria’s National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic integration Issues at the time.
Roma have also been targeted in Italy, France, Hungary, Romania and elsewhere on the streets of Europe. At matches, such as a game between Steaua Bucharest and rapid Bucharest in 2012, Steaua’s fans shouted chants against Roma including: “We have always hated and will always hate the Gypsies” and “Death to the Gypsies”. The Rapid Bucharest stadium is situated in the popular Giulesti neighbourhood, where many Roma live.
Roma women have also been abused by football fans on the streets of Madrid, Barcelona and Rome, leading to condemnation from Milena Santerini, the General Rapporteur against Racism and Intolerance for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). “They have been humiliated, taunted and even urinated upon by some supporters, as others watch on, cheering. These acts are demeaning and deny human dignity. They cannot be accepted.”
Jonathan Lee, spokesman for the European Roma Rights Centre, said at the time of the abuse directed at England in Bulgaria in October 2019: “Unfortunately, racist chanting and offensive gestures from the terraces is not even close to as bad as it gets in Bulgaria. Last Monday night, Europewas confronted with what for most Roma in the country is the everyday. Rising anti-Gypsyism, decline of the rule of law, and increasingly fascist political rhetoric is nothing new– it just rarely gets such a public stage.”
Lee added: “This is an EU member state where violentrace mobs are the norm, police violence is sudden and unpredictable, punitive demolitions of people’s homes are the appropriate government response, random murders of Romany citizens only a fleeting headline, and the rights and dignity of Romany citizens are routinely denied on a daily basis.”
In 1895 Rabbi Howell made history as the first Romany footballer to play for England. Throughout his career Howell Was known in the newspapers as “The Gypsy”, a nickname Steven Kay, who has written a book on Howell, said Howell would play up to, often saying he lived in a caravan in the woods.
But, he said: “He was just pulling their leg. He just let them think what they wanted to think.”Howell’s international career may have been limited by his background (he was only capped twice), but it is unclear whether he was subject to any abuse because of his Romany roots.
Portugal striker Ricardo Quaresma – also known as ‘The Gypsy’ – has told Portuguese newspaper O Jogothat racism was rife in the country.
He said: “When I hear people say there is no racism nowadays it makes me laugh. When something happens in Portugal it’s always the fault of gypsies, blacks, immigrants. It’s tough to live with this.”
Quaresma is one of a number of high-profile players of Romany descent, including Eric Cantona, Andrea Pirlo, Hristo Stoichkov, and former Southend United and Coventry City player Freddy Eastwood. There are many others who have played across the European continent.
However, their achievements appear to have done little to stop the abuse directed at players with Roma heritage
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