Gareth Southgate has admitted England considered walking off after suffering racist abuse in Bulgaria but says his players were determined to stay on and make a stand in their Euro 2020 qualifier.
England ran out 6-0 winners in Sofia but the game was marred by the torrent of racist abuse directed at their players with the game twice halted during the first half.
“The players were keen to finish the half and then have the discussion at half time,” confirmed Southgate.
“I’m incredibly proud of the players and all the staff. Of course, we could be criticised for not going far enough. But I think we have made a huge statement and, frankly, we were in an impossible situation to get it right for the satisfaction of everyone.”
Captain Harry Kane added: “The lads decided to stay out. They wanted to play. They wanted to carry on.”
While UEFA have declined to comments on events in Sofia, Sky Sports News’ Kaveh Solhekol reported: “It seemed, especially in the first half, that when any black England players got the ball they were subjected to abuse, racist abuse, monkey chants, Nazi salutes – the worst racism I’ve ever seen at a game.”
But Bulgaria head coach Krasimir Balakov said after the game: “I didn’t hear anything, but I just talked to the English press, and I told them that if this is proven to be true then we have to be ashamed and apologise for it. But once again, first it has to be proven to be true.”
Asked why his captain, Ivelin Popov, remonstrated with supporters at half-time, Balakov responded: “If our captain spoke to the fans, it was probably because of the way the team was performing.”
England midfielder Jordan Henderson described Balakov’s reaction to the abuse during the tie as “unacceptable”, adding: “Something needs to be done. He needs to apologise now on behalf of the team and the fans. He was asking me what the problem was and I told him he knew what was going on, he knew what the problem was.”
The Football Association have called on UEFA to investigate the racist abuse “as a matter of urgency”.
How the night of shame in Sofia unfolded
After racist chanting was reported to the match officials midway through the first half, the game was briefly stopped and a PA announcement was made calling for the chants to stop before play resumed.
But after the abuse continued, Southgate spoke to the fourth official and the match was briefly halted for a second time before half-time.
The match was restarted and 90 minutes was eventually completed but Southgate confirmed his players were considering walking off if the level of abuse continued into the second half.
“The referee came across on two of the occasions where we reported the abuse,” Southgate told Sky Sports.
“With the second we had a long discussion with the players as there was just four minutes until half time.
“We were clear that if there was anything at the beginning of the second half we would have walked straight off and frankly we wouldn’t have come back. But the officials here threw a fair number of supporters out of the ground and in the second half our football did the talking.
“The whole group has been united on where they stood on what might happen, during the game, at half time and at the end. Our players feel well supported. It’s such a difficult area as not everyone will agree we’ve gone far enough but I still believe we’ve made a huge statement. The game was stopped twice – I don’t believe that’s happened in international football. An even bigger statement was the way our players played.
“We’ve got players that have been through things they should never experience but they’ve come off with a smile on their face because of the way they’ve played. They always want the story to be about football but they’ve been a part of something that will be bigger.”
England players’ reaction to abuse on social media
Thankful to the brilliant England support. You got behind us in the most meaningful way possible tonight and we are all very grateful. Have a safe journey home and take care.
— Marcus Rashford (@MarcusRashford)
The football did the talking tonight. Proud of everyone❤️ @England
— Ben Chilwell (@BenChilwell)
The best way to bounce back. Proud of the team. There’s no place in football for that – disgraceful behaviour. Something must be done. 🏴 @England
— Harry Maguire (@HarryMaguire93)
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, u guys did well 🤟🏾❤️
— Raheem Sterling (@sterling7)
Henderson: Bulgaria boss must apologise
England midfielder Henderson was particularly critical of Balakov and said he should apologise for the behaviour of some of the home fans in the stadium. Balakov said he would apologise if the chanting was proved to be racist.
Henderson told Sky Sports: “I had a few words with the manager. It wasn’t acceptable. Something needs to be done. He needs to apologise now on behalf of the team and the fans. It’s just unacceptable. He knows what’s going on.
“He was asking me what the problem was and I told him he knew what was going on, he knew what the problem was. It was baffling how he didn’t, really. Hopefully after the game he looks back and he apologises because anybody watching that game would have been disgusted and know that’s not on.
“I felt angry. They’re my team-mates, they’re my friends who I’ve known for a long time and shared a dressing room with. It’s shocking to see. But the game goes on and you have to switch the focus to the football. I thought we did that brilliantly.
“At half time we spoke about it, we wanted to carry on. If one person thought, ‘listen, I don’t want to go back out there, it’s not on,’ then no one would have gone back out and that’d have been it. But everyone’s message was we wanted to make them suffer and not let them win. And I thought we did that brilliantly tonight.”
‘Worst racist abuse I’ve seen’
Chief superintendent of the UK Police Football Unit Steve Graham said the racist abuse suffered by England’s players was “quite simply the worst racist behaviour” he’d ever seen.
Graham told Sky Sports: “This is quite frankly the worst racist behaviour I have ever seen from a group of supporters either at the international or club stage, it is indescribable. The fans have been singing songs where they appeared to make Nazi salutes, whenever Raheem Sterling went for the ball we were hearing monkey chants and concerted booing and that happened with the other black players later in the game.
“During the pause in the game was a flag with right wing images displayed as well.”
‘Monkey chants, Nazi salutes’
Sky Sports News reporter Kaveh Solhekol was part of the travelling media in Sofia and gave his account of what he saw and heard inside the stadium.
He said: “It seemed, especially in the first half, when any black England players got the ball they were subjected to abuse, racist abuse, monkey chants, Nazi salutes, the worst racism I’ve ever seen at a game.
“It was not all the supporters inside that stadium. By and large a lot of Bulgarians are very well behaved and not racist, but the whole country was shamed tonight by some of their supporters.
“I’m not even sure they were football supporters. Some of the Bulgarian police told us they were neo-Nazis, people with balaclavas on, a lot of them wearing all black uniform.
“The Bulgarian police, at least in the first half, seemed to try to deal with the situation, to get these neo-Nazis out of the stadium.
“It has to be said in the second half the situation did calm down a bit but I was very close to the Bulgarian supporters and we still had the racist abuse, we still had monkey noises every time Raheem Sterling got the ball.
“When Jadon Sancho came on in the second half the first thing he heard were monkey chants aimed at him. It was a disgraceful night for Bulgarian football.”