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England’s Gareth Southgate seeks to calm racism row with Bulgaria | Football


Gareth Southgate has moved to smooth relations with Bulgaria before the Euro 2020 qualifier on Monday after he and members of the England squad were accused of making “offensive” and “derogatory” remarks that have raised the temperature around the fixture.

Southgate had suggested that he feared the worst in terms of possible racist abuse from the stands in Sofia, while the Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham said the players were prepared to walk off in the face of it and had also discussed whether they should ignore Uefa’s protocols regarding the issue.

Southgate is preparing for the tie in Prague against the Czech Republic on Friday night, when victory would secure England’s qualification for a finals they will host with a number of other cities. He wants the focus to be on the game, on his players expressing themselves and, hopefully, revelling in the thrill of qualifying.

As ever, though, there have been side issues, with the potential problems in Sofia at the top of the agenda. Borislav Mihaylov, the president of the Bulgarian Football Union, revealed on Thursday he had written to Uefa to express his frustration at comments made by Southgate and others, which he suggested had been pre-emptive.

Bulgaria’s stadium has been partially closed for two matches – the second of which will be against England – because of racist abuse from their supporters in the June qualifiers against the Czechs and Kosovo.

Mihaylov called upon Uefa to sanction England if they went against its protocols and he did not conceal his anger. “I personally find these comments [from Southgate] offensive due to the unjust branding of the local spectators as people inclined to discriminatory behaviour,” Mihaylov said. “I cannot allow for such derogatory claims to continue being spread in the mass media.”

Southgate, who suggested his players would respect Uefa protocols, made the point that England would be foolish not to look at the country’s own issues with racism and he mentioned the alleged abuse in a National League game between Hartlepool and Dover in September.

“I can totally understand why the Bulgarian president feels as he does because we have purely been responding honestly to questions we’ve been asked,” Southgate said. “That will then be relayed and the way it’s pitched could appear provocative.

“We are not trying to create a situation, far from it. We’re all hoping that over the next 72 hours we’re just talking about two football matches.

“I have to say again, we don’t look at other countries in a way that we don’t shine a mirror on our own. What happened in Hartlepool a couple of weeks ago was probably worse than things I’ve seen or heard about in many other countries in the world.”

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Raheem Sterling, who has been a passionate anti-racism campaigner, said at the moment that he had “full faith in Uefa” and its protocols. He talked more about his ambition to win silverware with England, having done so at club level with Manchester City, and he admitted he found extra motivation from the fact the Euro 2020 final will be held at Wembley, close to where he grew up.

“It’s something you think of all the time [winning with England], especially after coming so close in the World Cup,” Sterling said. “I feel that a lot of the players don’t just want to be involved in tournaments and finish in the quarter-finals or the semi‑finals and say that was a good run.

“Every single player and the manager all want to go into tournaments with the thought of winning. It’s definitely something we all dream of.”

Sterling is part of a highly rated group of England attackers alongside Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, while Southgate also name‑checked Callum Hudson‑Odoi and Arsenal’s 18-year-old Bukayo Saka.

“It’s exciting but we have to do it in big games, big tournaments,” Sterling said. “That’s when we’ll be judged as a great front three or not.”



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