England manager Gareth Southgate was proud of his players after making a “major statement” on and off the pitch by refusing to let the racists win in Bulgaria.
Monkey chants and Nazi salutes punctuated England’s 6-0 win in Monday’s Euro 2020 qualifier at the Vasil Levski National Stadium, where the Football Association’s worst fears came to fruition on a night of shame in Sofia.
The match became a sideshow and was halted twice as England players received abhorrent abuse, with the first step of UEFA’s protocol implemented in the 28th minute as an announcement was made on the public address system.
There was another pause in play as half-time approached following more racist behaviour, but play resumed after widespread discussion and the departure of a group of individuals in the home end.
Few would have blamed England’s players for refusing to return for the second half, but they did so with great dignity and moved a step closer to Euro 2020 as braces from Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley complemented Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane’s efforts.
“We have prepared for the whole week and maintained communication with all of our players and all of our staff throughout,” Southgate said.
“We made the fourth official aware as soon as we heard anything happen – and everybody saw the game stopped and the announcement to the crowd.
“We then weren’t happy that things were continuing and we made a further complaint and then we had a really open discussion with the referee, the fourth official and the players.
“The players were very clear, they wanted to get to half-time.
“We all felt, there were four minutes to be played, to go off for 10 minutes, come back for four, go back off for half-time, wasn’t what my players wanted.
“Throughout this, I know that whatever we do might be perceived as not being enough but I think we’ve made a major statement.
“I think 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.
“And, in the second half, although I hear that other things were going on, none of us on the pitch or at the side were aware of anything else going on, so the most important thing for me was that we got in at half-time.
“I discussed with all of the players and the substitutes that everybody was on-board. We knew that if anything happened in the second half, we were off.
“The referee had said the same and we knew that if we came off, we probably wouldn’t be coming back on.
“When I’ve talked to the players at the end, I think they still feel that they’ve been able to make a statement but they also, naturally – because they want to be recognised for their football – they were playing so well that they didn’t want to leave the pitch at that moment. I’m sure that will have been part of their thinking.
“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.”
FA chairman Greg Clarke called it “one of the most appalling nights” he has ever seen in football, with the governing body asking UEFA to investigate as a matter of urgency.
Southgate was quick to praise referee Ivan Bebek for his role, while the manager spoke to doctor Rob Chakraverty and coach Chris Powell to check he was acting in the right way.
This was England’s second Euro 2020 qualifying match marred by racism as players were racially abused in Montenegro – but the England manager does not believe this night will leave a psychological scar.
“Sadly, my players, because of their experiences in our own country, are hardened to racism,” Southgate said.
“I don’t know what that says about our society but that’s the reality, so that actually saddens me that when I speak to them about it, they are absolutely hardened to it.
“They are in the dressing room smiling because they’ve played so well.
“They also know they’ve made a statement and they want the focus to be on the football.
“We will recognise there’s been an opportunity tonight to raise awareness of this issue. I think that has happened.
“But Raheem has got the hump with me for taking him off when he’s on a hat-trick. So, they’re smiling, they’re smiling.
“They’ve played well, they know they’ve played well. They shouldn’t have had to have experienced what they did, but the unity of the dressing room and all of the staff and players… 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.”