LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on world soccer’s governing body FIFA on Friday to take action over what he described as “disgraceful” racist abuse aimed at England players by Hungary fans during a World Cup qualifier.
“It is completely unacceptable that England players were racially abused in Hungary last night,” he wrote on Twitter.
Johnson urged FIFA to take “strong action against those responsible to ensure that this kind of disgraceful behaviour is eradicated from the game for good.”
FIFA said on Friday that it had opened disciplinary proceedings into the incidents at the match and reiterated an earlier statement reaffirming its zero tolerance stance against racism.
Johnson’s government has previously been criticised by some players and commentators, who say the Conservative prime minister and some of his top team fanned the flames of prejudice in ways that encouraged online abuse of three Black players on the England team during the European Championship earlier this year.
Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, who are all Black, were the among the targets of the abuse after they missed spot-kicks in a penalty shootout with Italy which settled the Euro final in July after the game finished as a 1-1 draw.
A section of England supporters also booed their own players during the tournament when they took the knee before kickoff at matches to protest against racism.
While Johnson himself said after the final that the team should not be booed, his own spokesman had initially declined to criticise the fans over the issue when asked the previous month.
British broadcasters reported that Black England players were targeted with racial abuse by some Hungary supporters during Thursday’s World Cup qualifier in Budapest that England won 4-0.
ITV and Sky Sports said their reporters heard monkey chants being aimed at England forward Raheem Sterling and substitute Jude Bellingham.
During the game, Hungarian fans threw plastic cups towards England players and a flare also landed on the field, and the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ) said any fans identified would face legal action.
But it did not address the racism allegations.
“We need to identify the troublemakers and strictly punish them in order to protect these fans,” the MLSZ said in a statement on its website.
“The fans who threw flares and cups on the pitch are being identified. The Hungarian Football Federation will report/has already reported them to the police,” they said, adding that those responsible faced two-year bans.
England manager Gareth Southgate and several of the team’s players said they did not hear the reported abuse.
“We weren’t conscious of it on the side and I don’t know whether the players on the pitch were, but I think everyone knows what we have talked about for two or three years,” he told Sky Sports.
“They know what we stand for as a team, and we have to hope that we can continue to eradicate racism from not only football but life in general.”
Sky Sports showed footage of one fan making a monkey gesture in the stands of the Puskas Arena but said they had seen other individuals also behave similarly.
England’s Football Association has asked FIFA to investigate the matter.
Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto posted on Facebook a video of England fans booing the Italian national anthem at the Euro 2020 final in July.
He wrote: “England players are complaining about last night’s ‘hostile atmosphere in Budapest.’ The footage below was recorded in Wembley before the European Championship final. You can barely hear the Italian anthem over the whistling England supporters. Did they make similar comments back then???”
Hungary were punished by European soccer governing body UEFA after incidents involving homophobia and racism at Euro 2020 games, and they must play their next two UEFA matches behind closed doors. Thursday’s game was in a FIFA competition so the UEFA ban does not apply.
UEFA said that any disciplinary action over Thursday’s incidents was a matter for FIFA but it repeated its own condemnation of racism.
“UEFA strongly condemns any discriminatory/racist behaviour and we will continue to lead the fight against racism and discrimination in the game.”
(Reporting by William Schomberg and Simon Evans; Additional reporting by Simon Jennings; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Raissa Kasolowsky)