When Viv Solomon-Otabor stepped off the plane after returning from his first international call-up, his phone would not stop buzzing. The messages were not ones of congratulations for being part of the Nigeria squad that had faced Brazil but about the shocking racism at England’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria.
London-born Solomon-Otabor left Birmingham City for CSKA Sofia last summer in search of a new adventure after seven years at St Andrew’s. The midfielder’s early experiences in Bulgaria were enjoyable and the football was going so well he was called up by Nigeria for that friendly in Singapore. Since England’s visit to Sofia last October, however, the 24-year-old’s time in the country has been repeatedly soured by racist abuse, leaving him isolated.
Monkey chants were aimed at England players, resulting in the game being stopped twice and a large group of home supporters being ejected. Uefa fined Bulgaria £65,000 and forced the national team to play two games behind closed doors (one suspended for two years). Solomon-Otabor has since been targeted by fans of CSKA Sofia and other Bulgarian clubs with monkey chants and via racist messages on social media.
“I didn’t watch the game but the moment I got off the plane my phone started buzzing,” Solomon-Otabor says. “Everyone was like: ‘Is this what you go through?’, ‘You need to come home’, ‘You need to get out of there’. I was surprised because it’s happened but up until that I had never experienced it; I had never heard it or seen it. When England came, it was just some stupid people. It is just ignorant people who don’t have knowledge or education. I had never experienced it and was never conscious of it.”
During a cup tie at Arda in early December, Solomon-Otabor was the victim of monkey chants from home fans. The stadium announcer called for the abuse to stop, saying the game would otherwise be abandoned. Arda were fined €18,000. “I was warming up when I was racially abused by the Arda fans, so that was quite difficult,” Solomon-Otabor says. “I keep getting abusive messages, which is not nice. A fan told me to go home and I can’t say the words that he said.”
Solomon-Otabor has become an isolated figure in Sofia because of the regularity of the abuse, focusing on training and playing before returning to his flat for the remainder of the day. Although he has not suffered racism while out in the city, Solomon-Otabor does not want to put himself at risk.
“The hardest part is that I am alone. I’ve not lived in another country before and not feeling too comfortable when being out because of what happened to me on the pitch. That is the most difficult thing. I tend to just keep to myself and stay at home.
“I have had no problems on the streets or anything like that. I think it’s just a mental thing; it’s just how it is. In the club everyone is fantastic. It’s a great club with great history. Everyone at the club is proud of it and really respect the club, so it’s massive to them. Everyone is nice and welcoming but there are stupid people who ruin these things, which is not nice for a young boy coming from England. I have never gone through something like this where you do not feel comfortable.”
Solomon-Otabor feels he has become a target for locals regardless of his attitude or performance. Insults via social media have included being called the N-word and being sent monkey emojis. As a black English player in Bulgaria, it appears he has become the target for those looking to avenge the punishment that followed the Euro 2020 qualifier.
“I get sent silly, racial messages on Facebook. I try not to look any more. There are ones when they message you, you open the request and see a message and think: ‘Here we go.’ Now I just block them and move on.”
CSKA Sofia have offered constant support to Solomon-Otabor. In a statement in December they said: “We stand firmly behind our football player Viv Solomon-Otabor, who has been attacked and insulted on this basis in our recent matches.” The club, however, were fined €19,000 at the start of March for their fans racially abusing the Tsarko Sofia midfielder Dylan Bahamboula during a match.
Coming back from Singapore was supposed to be a time of celebration for Solomon-Otabor, having proved his bold decision to head to Bulgaria had paid dividends by earning international recognition. To be part of a group facing Brazil was a career highlight, even if he failed to make it off the bench.
“It was surreal to be in the squad and in training. I was very excited and happy but when I got there I knew it was business. I trained and performed well – it was just unfortunate I didn’t get on the pitch. I assume another opportunity will come. Obviously, seeing world-class players like Neymar and Coutinho, alongside talented youngsters like Jesus and Casemiro, it was a very exciting moment for me personally and a very proud moment for my family.”
In Bulgaria, as in most places, things are on hold but Solomon-Otabor is aiming to refocus on football soon enough. “My hopes now are just to continue working hard to play and to see what happens. I just want to progress and go higher.”