Gareth Southgate praises England players for making ‘major statement’ | Football

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Gareth Southgate felt his England players made a “major statement” in getting their Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria in Sofia halted twice as he reflected on what Greg Clarke, the Football Association chairman, called “one of the most appalling nights I’ve seen in football”.

England’s three starting black players – Tyrone Mings, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford – were subjected to monkey chants with Mings, the debutant, saying he had first heard them during the warm-up. In line with Uefa’s three-step protocol, England reported the abuse to the referee, Ivan Bebek, who passed on a message to be broadcast over the PA system for it to stop.

In the 41st minute, following further abuse and more complaints from England, Bebek temporarily stopped the game and asked Southgate whether he wanted to take his players off to the dressing room. The manager said they wanted to make it to half-time. There were further talks during the interval but England were determined to play on in the second-half – to show the racists they would not win, to quote Clarke. There remained the threat that they would walk off if there was more abuse and the game, which finished in a 6-0 England win, would be abandoned.

“I know that whatever we do might be perceived as not being enough but I think we’ve made a major statement,” Southgate said. “We’ve made a major statement with the way we played, through such difficult circumstances. I don’t think a game of this magnitude has ever been stopped twice. So, I’m incredibly proud of all of the players and all of the staff.

“We could be criticised for not going far enough but I think we’ve made a huge statement and, frankly, we were in an impossible situation to get it right to the satisfaction of everybody.

“The players were all absolutely adamant they wanted to keep playing but also we knew, if there was anything in the second half, we’d be reporting it and coming off.”

Southgate gave an insight into how steeled his players now were to racist abuse. “Sadly, because of their experiences in our own country, they are hardened to racism,” he said.

“I don’t know what that says about our society but that’s the reality. It actually saddens me. So they actually are in the dressing room smiling because they’ve played so well.

“We will recognise there’s been an opportunity tonight to raise awareness of this issue and I think that has happened. But Raheem Sterling has got the hump with me for taking him off when he’s on a hat-trick. Sometimes you have to smile through adversity. We all knew we were in a pretty impossible situation so we’ve tried to navigate it in the best way we could.”

Sterling later retweeted a news story in which the Bulgaria coach, Krasimir Balakov, accused England of having a bigger racism problem than his own country. “Mmmmh‚ not sure about this one chief,” Sterling wrote. “Feeling sorry for Bulgaria to be represented by such idiots in their stadium. Anyway, 6-0 and we go back home. At least we did our job. Safe travel to our fans, you guys did well.”

Mings said: “I heard [the chants] before I even got to the other side of the pitch for the warm-up. Just before half-time we were contemplating coming off because that was the next step after a stadium announcement. There were a couple of minutes to go to half-time, so we thought we’d play the couple of minutes, go in and talk about it then, which we did and we made a collective decision.

“It didn’t affect my feelings. I think I’m quite lucky in that way because I don’t feel like it is a personal assault. I feel sorry for the people who have those views. But I also have a duty to represent people that don’t have a voice, so it didn’t hurt or harm my feelings one bit. It was obviously bigger than me and bigger than what I felt.”

The Bulgaria captain, Ivelin Popov, was seen in a heated debate with a section of home supporters near to the tunnel as the teams departed for half-time. “I’ve been told what the Bulgaria captain did at half-time,” Rashford said. “To stand alone and do the right thing takes courage and acts like that shouldn’t go unnoticed.”

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