Gareth Southgate refused to be embroiled in a war of words with Krasimir Balakov after the Bulgaria manager said England has more problems with racism than his country.
England’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria on Monday has been overshadowed by fears that racist abuse will be directed at Southgate’s players in Sofia.
After several of England’s stars endured racist taunts during a qualifier in Montenegro last season, the trip to Bulgaria is a concern for Southgate and company.
England players were also victims of racism on their last visit to Bulgaria in 2011 and Southgate briefed the squad about the UEFA protocol on dealing with such issues at the start of the international break.
But Bulgarian Football Union president Borislav Mikhaylov had already complained that his country was being unfairly criticised by England players.
And Bulgaria manager Balakov said in his press conference on Sunday that English football had a bigger problem with racism.
“What I can say is that I don’t think we have a problem. In the Bulgarian championship, we have a lot of players of different ethnicities and skin colour,” he said. “I don’t think that we have this big problem like, for example, England do.”
Amid suggestions England will walk off the pitch if there is any racism in Bulgaria, the team held a meeting last week to discuss how they will react at the Vasil Levski stadium.
However, Southgate, who has repeatedly said England need to get their own house in order over racism, was keen to focus on the match rather than get dragged into more mud-throwing.
“Well I say the same as I said the other night in Prague. We are guests in another country and I have always said we have as many issues in own country to resolve than anywhere else,” Southgate said in a press conference broadcast on Sky Sports News.
“Everyone wants us to talk about football, for the players and both teams the same. We had to prepare our players for what happened in Montenegro, so that was a process that we needed to go through before our next away fixtures.
“Outside of that, we trust the authorities to make sure everything is in place and everybody involved in the game from both countries is wanting to talk about the match.”
England lost their first European or World Cup qualifier in a decade in a 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic last week.
A win in Prague would have booked England’s place at Euro 2020 and Southgate said his Group A leaders are keen to make amends for that missed opportunity.
“We have a very honest group and are very self-reflective. They don’t need me to tell them when they haven’t played at the level they can,” he said. The key is always to recover from the result. We have to move forward and focus on tomorrow.
“I don’t think defeats harm teams if the reaction is good. Then what you learn from defeats and the resilience from defeats are important parts of a player’s career. I have always maintained that we have to qualify, and we haven’t secured that qualification yet and our focus tomorrow is to get the performance and result.”
Southgate is reported to be considering using the three-man defensive formation which he favoured during last year’s run to the World Cup semi-finals.
But the England manager would only say “We are always looking at every aspect. We train and have meetings specifically on every area of the performance. There is always particular focus when an area is not going too well.
“In terms of tactical adjustments, we are always thinking about the best way to get the best players on the field, be the most dangerous, to get the best of our strengths but hide our weaknesses.”
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