England's five-goal comeback delivered a gut punch to Montenegro's national soccer team in its Euro 2020 qualifier. Then the Adriatic nation's fans allegedly embarrassed themselves with chants the English players and coaches say were blatantly racist.
England Manager Gareth Southgate, Raheem Sterling, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and other players said they clearly heard the racist chants against a number of black players during England's 5-1 victory over Montenegro on March 25.
Montenegrin coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic and other team officials said after the match that they weren't aware of the taunts, but the country's football association said on March 26 that UEFA, European football's governing body, had initiated disciplinary proceedings.
A Montenegrin fan in Podgorica before the match
'Among other things, during the disciplinary procedure UEFA will investigate details related to the allegedly individual racist behavior of the minor part of the national team of Montenegro that was notified to the delegate of the match by the representatives of the Football Association of England,' it said in a statement.
The statement added that the Montenegrin association would not comment on the allegation until the investigation was completed.
English players said the offensive chants started early in the game when the team's black players would touch the ball.
The effects of the taunts, which included monkey noises, became even more clear when Raheem Sterling scored in the 81st minute of play.
After his goal put England up 5-1, he cupped his hands to his ears as he celebrated, later tweeting that it was the 'best way to silence haters (and yeah I mean racists).'
Danny Rose's injury-time yellow card fueled the chants further.
While Tumbakovic denied hearing anything, Southgate was adamant that he heard the racist insults and chants hurled at his players.
'There's no doubt in my mind it happened,' he said when asked at a press conference about the incidents, which reporters at the game said they heard as well:
'It's unacceptable,' he added. 'I heard abuse of Rose when he got booked.'
Racist and nationalist displays at sporting events have received increasing attention from governing bodies eager to curb such behavior in the Balkans and elsewhere.
But that region still shows the scars of the bloody ethnic-based wars that broke up Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which continue to fuel nationalist extremism.
FIFA, the authority over world football, fined both Kosovo's and Croatia's football associations in November 2016 after fans chanted racist insults at Serbs during a World Cup qualifying match played in Albania.
Rose himself was the target of racists taunts during a match in Serbia in 2012.
James Slack, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May, said 'strong and swift action' from UEFA was needed in the incident.
Montenegro faces possible fines for the incident and could be handed a sentence of a partial or full stadium closure for the team's next Euro 2020 qualifier in June against Kosovo.
'Racism, as on display yesterday at the Montenegro versus England match, in Balkan football fandom is despicable as it is. However, I doubt tougher [financial] penalties will solve anything in a significant way,' said Dario Brentin, a Balkans sport and politics researcher at Austria's Center of Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz.
'Sanctions are worthless if you don't force FAs to invest into educational programs.'
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036