The sheer inevitability of the racist abuse hurled at England’s players here at the Puskas Arena on Thursday night made it all the more depressing.
The scenes were grimly predictable after the behaviour of elements of Hungary’s home support during Euro 2020, and Gareth Southgate’s pre-match press briefings were littered with questions about potential discrimination.
England were subjected to monkey chants in the second half of an impressive 4-0 World Cup qualifying win in Budapest, and Hungary fans also booed them taking the knee and hurled objects, including a flare, on to the pitch.
Hungary were ordered to play two UEFA matches behind closed doors, with a third such game being suspended for two years, after incidents of racism and homophobia during Euro 2020, so no one could claimed to be surprised by their fans’ behaviour.
The hosts were bizarrely allowed a full stadium last night because the qualifier fell under the jurisdiction of FIFA, rather than UEFA. Hungary are not scheduled to serve their bans until next year’s Nations League matches.
Plainly, the situation is absurd and it was small consolation that none of England’s players appeared to hear the monkey chants during the match.
The evidence was irrefutable, with Sky’s cameras picking up a Hungarian spectator — wearing the black shirt of the country’s official supporters club — making monkey gestures towards Sterling, who opened the scoring in another decisive display for the team.
England’s players should never have been put in this position and Hungary should never have been allowed nearly 60,000 supporters after monkey chanting and homophobic banners at this ground marred the Euros. A united approach from UEFA and FIFA to tackling racism is long overdue — for the reputation of the game and, more importantly, the welfare and safety of the players.
Not for the first time, the situation left the impression that the governing bodies do not care enough about tackling racism.
“You can’t believe that two organisations can’t get together and say they are banned,” former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright told ITV last night. “The sad thing is...black players will know that they will probably get racially abused because they’re banned as it is and they are allowed back in.”
The other searing question for UEFA and FIFA is whether their existing punishments are even sufficient.
An impending stadium ban evidently did not deter some of the Hungarian ultras from racist abuse. Nor, obviously, will fines to their national association.
It is time to consider hitting them where it hurts. A severe points deduction or the very real threat of a total ban from the Qatar World Cup might persuade the racists to think twice.
Whatever the punishments, FIFA and UEFA need to come together. They can be no more wriggle room for racists. The abuse only demonstrated why England’s players continue to take the knee, which was loudly booed by every corner of the Puskas Arena before kick-off.
To their credit, England players only seemed to revel in the hostility — no one more so than Sterling. The louder they booed, the more determined were England to humiliate them on the pitch.
Just as he so often did during the Euros, the Manchester City winger made the key breakthrough, opening his body to side-foot into the corner on 55 minutes, as England mercilessly stepped up a gear in the second half.
He celebrated by the corner-flag, where he was pelted with cups and debris from the stands. Declan Rice and Jack Grealish pretended to drink from the cups, perfectly encapsulating the defiance of England’s players.
Sterling’s every touch was booed thereafter but he continued to make the difference, crossing for Harry Kane to glance home a flying header for 2-0.
Harry Maguire and then Rice added further goals after poor goalkeeping, as England suffered no Euro 2020 hangover and sent a powerful message about their unity and character.
If only FIFA and UEFA would do the same.