England were booed as they took a knee before kick-off in Saturday’s Nations League game against Hungary – by a stadium mostly packed with children.
The match in Budapest was technically a ‘behind-closed-doors’ game following UEFA sanctions imposed after Hungarian fans’ anti-gay and racist chants during their three Euro 2020 group stage matches.
However, Article 73 of UEFA’s disciplinary regulations state that certain exceptions can be made, including “children up to the age of 14 (duly accompanied) from schools and/or football academies”.
With one adult accompanying every 10 children, there were around 35,000 people inside the Puskas Arena, many of whom laughed at the England players as they made their now usual anti-discrimination gesture before the game started.
“Very surprised,” England coach Gareth Southgate said when asked about the reaction to Hungary’s 1-0 win. “That’s why we do it. We try to educate. Young people can only be influenced by older people, so I think it’s one of those on a day like today where we don’t didn’t play well enough and didn’t win the game, it’s probably best for me to accept the criticism that comes with it.”
Part of UEFA’s punishment – which was reduced from a three-game ban on appeal to two matches including one suspended for two years and a €100,000 fine – was for posting anti-racism messages to inside the field.
A UEFA ‘Respect’ banner with the hashtag Equal Game was displayed above a message in Hungarian — ‘A gyulolet nem palya’ which can be translated as ‘racism is not a playground’ — and a secondary hashtag, #csakegyutt, meaning #onlytogether.
In the program for the day, the president of the Hungarian Football Association, Dr Csanyi Sandor, wrote: “UEFA has decreed that this match must be played behind closed doors due to the misbehavior of the fans, the lesson being that international organizations do not tolerate even the slightest manifestation of racism and hatred.
“We will do everything possible to ensure that our passionate support remains but that any unsportsmanlike behavior disappears from the stadiums so that in future we can stage all important matches in front of full crowds without restrictions.”
Speaking ahead of Friday’s game, Southgate admitted he was “surprised” at the number of fans expected to attend a match behind closed doors, adding: “The key is education. The youngsters at the stadium hopefully- the, will pick up this message tomorrow.”
However, the boos and jeers were clearly audible as the players took the knee as the vuvuzelas rattled incessantly in a game that went 0-0 to half-time.
England are also inviting schoolchildren to next weekend’s Nations League home game against Italy at Molineux, a punishment stemming from crowd disturbances caused ahead of last summer’s Euro 2020 final between the two countries, but the Football Association would only have asked for between 2,000 and 3,000 supporters.
England were handed a two-game stadium ban, with one match suspended for two years, and ordered to pay an £84,560 fine after ticketless fans fought security staff and police.
Separately, Hungary were given a two-match stadium ban, including a two-year ban, and a 200,000 FIFA Swiss franc fan for racist chanting during England’s last visit to Budapest – September World Cup qualifiers which ended in a 4-0 victory for the Southgate side.