Major statement made against racism: Southgate

England's Raheem Sterling, one of the players targeted by racial abuse, scoring his team's fourth goal in the 6-0 Euro 2020 qualifying win over Bulgaria on Monday night.
England's Raheem Sterling, one of the players targeted by racial abuse, scoring his team's fourth goal in the 6-0 Euro 2020 qualifying win over Bulgaria on Monday night.PHOTO: REUTERS

SOFIA • Given the history and the build-up, in which claim and counter-claim had raised the temperature around England's Euro 2020 qualifier in Bulgaria, it was easy to fear the worst on Monday night.

But when it did happen, when the monkey chants towards Tyrone Mings started from a section of the home support during the warm-up, there could only be revulsion.

However, the Aston Villa defender, who ought to have revelled in the thrill of wearing the England shirt for the first time, was not the only black player to be targeted.

Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford also heard the disgusting noises, meaning England's 6-0 win which left them on the verge of qualification from Group A, was quickly relegated to a footnote.

The idea for Gareth Southgate and his players was to show their capacity to bounce back from Friday's 2-1 defeat by the Czech Republic in Prague and they did that in style, with Rashford, Ross Barkley (two), Sterling (two) and captain Harry Kane all getting on the scoresheet.

But this was an altogether different kind of psychological test in front of a hostile crowd in which Nazi salutes were also performed.

The England manager had made it plain before the game that he and his players would follow European football governing body Uefa's three-step protocol to deal with racist abuse and so they did.

First, there was an announcement over the public address system calling for the chants to stop and, when they did not, the referee Ivan Bebek halted the game just before the interval and asked Southgate if he wanted to take his players off to the dressing room.

DOING THE RIGHT THING

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.

GARETH SOUTHGATE, England manager, on how his players were rightfully making a stand against racism.

There was the option for the players not to return, which would have likely resulted in a default 3-0 win for the visitors, but Football Association chairman Greg Clarke said they did not want the racists to win.

England's last visit to the Vasil Levski Stadium in 2011, also for a Euro qualifier, had been scarred by monkey chants towards Ashley Cole, Ashley Young and Theo Walcott, showing how little progress had been made since, with more audible taunts heard after the break.

Southgate later praised his players for making a "major statement" in getting the match halted twice as he reflected on what Clarke called "one of the most appalling nights I've seen in football".

He said: "I know whatever we do might be perceived as not being enough and, frankly, we were in an impossible situation to get it right to the satisfaction of everybody.

"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."

In response to the appalling scenes in Sofia, Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin yesterday called on "governments to do more in this area (combating racism)" and insisted that Uefa was "doing everything it can to eliminate this disease from football".

But anti-racism body Kick It Out said the European football organisation was enabling this sort of behaviour, having "consistently failed to take effective action". It added that "points deductions and tournament expulsion must follow".

The controversy also led to yesterday's resignation of Bulgarian Football Union chief Borislav Mihaylov, following criticism from Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, with the local body being raided by police shortly after the announcement.

REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2019, with the headline 'Major statement made against racism: Southgate'. Print Edition | Subscribe