Working on the Irish TV coverage of Bulgaria v England on Monday night acted as another reminder of how silly a job it can be at times.
I refer to that moment when you are debating whether to spend half-time discussing the depressing scenes of racist abuse to which black England players were subjected, or Harry Winks’ performance in midfield.
Winks or racism? Hmmm.
With the planet in a state of chassis, it is now quite a regular occurrence to have the comfort zone of football chat invaded by nasty, real-world stuff.
Racism, terrorism, the FAI’s finances — any of these grave topics are liable to crop up in a realm normally restricted to debates about dubious penalties and Paul Pogba’s hair-dos.
It can be tricky to strike the right tone when one is asking football men to comment on matters outside their purview.
Most are not experts in what are usually complicated, nuanced issues worthy of 5,000-word articles in The Economist rather than three minutes between commercial breaks.
Too often there is little more to be said than, “it really puts football in perspective,” and then move on.
Take BBC’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup, for example, when they sent pundits to film segments about South Africa’s dark history.
Alan Shearer wandered around townships and gazed glumly into Mandela’s cell in Robben Island.
“Tough times for your family when that happened,” he observed to a local whose brother had been gunned down in gang violence. (To be fair, Mark Lawrenson on the Battle of the Spion Kop was surprisingly good.)
Fortunately, in Brian Kerr, we had someone who is not only well able to hold forth on matters outside football, but has also specifically campaigned against racism in sport for some time.
Brian told us about his work with Sport Against Racism Ireland who, through the European body Football Against Racism Europe, have long been pushing Uefa to take much stronger action on this issue.
“They’ve been far too lenient,” said Kerr. “Mickey Mouse fines, partial ground closures, it’s not enough, and putting the onus on the referee and putting the pressure on the players is not enough.
"It’s time that they stood up and took real, real action. It’s a horrendous carry-on.”
Well said, and the circumstances of Monday night meant it was hard to argue about the weakness of Uefa’s pea-shooter diplomacy.
Bulgaria, remember, were literally being punished for past racist incidents in this very match, in the form of a partial stadium closure, a measure whose ineffectiveness was grimly self-evident.
Not an easy situation to play in and not one which should be happening in 2019. Proud we rose above it to take three points but this needs stamping out. pic.twitter.com/jTnUGOa8z2— Marcus Rashford (@MarcusRashford) October 14, 2019
In the aftermath of Sofia, the Nazi salutes were followed by the pointing of fingers. Many observers joined Brian in scorning Uefa’s preference for feather duster over iron rod.
Others pointed out the hypocrisy of the English media in downplaying the xenophobia of their own support, with their conquests of European town squares and booing of opposition national anthems.
Herein lay the irony of the Brexit brigade in Sofia singing: “You racist bastards, you know what you are!”
On it went. The English attacked the Bulgarians. The Bulgarians shrugged their shoulders and said they heard nothing.
The Bulgarian prime minister called on the head of the Bulgarian FA to stand down.
The Bulgarian prime minister’s critics pointed out how his own racist rhetoric and tolerance of the far right had led to this point.
The British prime minister demanded strong action from Uefa. The British prime minister’s critics pointed out how his own racist rhetoric and tolerance of the far right meant he was hardly one to talk.
Defending Uefa’s record on racism, president Alexander Ceferin looked to the bigger picture.
UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin underlines the commitment of European football’s governing body to tackle racism...— UEFA (@UEFA) October 15, 2019
“Football associations themselves cannot solve this problem. Governments too need to do more in this area,” he said.
Racism is society’s problem, so leave me to my rinky-dink hashtags and €15,000 fines, he seemed to say.
It’s easy to point the finger in situations like this, especially when there is so much blame to go around.
Few bother to look at what makes a bunch of young Bulgarian lads decide it was a good idea to spend a Monday night abusing black footballers from a faraway land.
If it feels inadequate to be talking about it on TV soccer panels, that’s because of the sheer vastness and complexity of the issue.
After all, Monday night’s scenes crystallised some of the great existential challenges of our time.
Bulgaria is the EU’s poorest country. Corruption and organised crime are rife. Far-right organisations have capitalised by scapegoating immigrants and racial minorities.
Needless to say, none of these issues are unique to Bulgaria.
Increased immigration, exacerbated by the effects of climate change, vast income inequalities caused by rapacious capitalism and the abuse of Big Tech’s omnipotence to promote hate speech: that’s pretty much the global shitstorm right there.
Anyone of influence in Britain should see the parallels between their own societal breakdown and what we saw in the stands in the Vasil Levski Stadium.
It turns out the No Surrender yobbos and the neo-Nazi hoodies have more in common than they realise, but “You racist bastards, we understand and empathise with the deeper socio-economic causes of your actions!” doesn’t scan as well.
Maybe Uefa should kick Bulgaria out of football until it cleans up its act. And then all the other countries with racist fans.
But that won’t butter many parsnips for Alexander Ceferin in the next presidential election, so it’s not going to happen.
Football, with its fines, bans, and hashtags, feels pretty powerless with this one, even if it should do better.
This is a big problem that needs a big solution, but we’re pretty bad at that sort of thing right now.
Alas, finger-pointing is all we are going to get from the people who could make an actual difference here; if they won’t come together to sort out the actual apocalypse, then the well-being of Tyrone Mings must be pretty low on their list of priorities.
Maybe we should have gone with Harry Winks after all.