England manager Gareth Southgate has played down a potential spat with the Bulgarian Football Union – stressing that attempts to prepare and support his players in the face of potential racist abuse has been misconstrued by Monday’s eastern European opposition.
The Three Lions will seal qualification for Euro 2020 with three games to spare if they win in the Czech Republic on Friday night, but the main focus at the pre-match press conference was the potential for problems three days later.
Southgate took the unusual step of expressing concerns about the potential for racism in Bulgaria a month ahead of Monday’s match – fears the country’s football federation called “groundless, inappropriate and unnecessary”.
The Bulgarian Football Union’s fury has only ratcheted up in recent days and federation president Borislav Mikhaylov has said England’s players should face sanctions from UEFA if they continue to talk about the possibility of racist abuse in the country.
The former goalkeeper has written to European football’s governing body to express his anger at the comments from the England camp suggesting they could walk off the pitch without following UEFA’s three-step protocol.
Asked about Mikhaylov’s comments, Southgate said in Prague: “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 by you guys (in the media).
“That will then be relayed however it may be relayed in Bulgaria, and the way that that’s pitched could appear provocative or appear that we’re the people who are laying the subject on the table.
“So, if I was him, and I was only reading those quotes and not knowing the context of why the things were said and the responses were said, then I would feel probably as he does.
“We are not trying to create a situation at all, far from it.
“We’re all hoping that over the next 72 hours, we’re just talking about two football matches.
“I think both countries would have a strong desire for that, and 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.”
Southgate insisted the Football Association and their Bulgarian counterparts would work together in an attempt to make sure on-field issues were the main talking point come Tuesday morning in Sofia.
“We’ll always answer the questions as honestly as we can and as openly as we can,” he added.
“But we’re working with the Bulgarians to have an event that is concentrated on the football and, more than anything, our players don’t want to be the centre of anything, they want to be able to play their football and it’s for us and the authorities to deal with the other part of things.
“They shouldn’t have to worry about that. We encourage them to report anything because they don’t have to accept anything but beyond that, it’s for us to take that stance and that they feel fully supported in that.”