England manager Gareth Southgate feels UEFA's approach to tackling racist incidents in stadia is unacceptable and he would not hesitate to lead his team off the pitch if required in future. (More Football News)
The subject of racism in society has been at the fore of global discussion since George Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25. A police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes, sparking protests across the United States and beyond.
England players were subjected to racist abuse during Euro 2020 qualifiers in Montenegro in March 2019 and in Bulgaria last October.
UEFA's three-step procedure for tackling such incidents was initiated during the game in Sofia, with the match twice stopped and announcements made over the stadium's public address system.
The last resort would have been to abandon the match, and Southgate said he would be ready to ensure that step was followed if he found England in a similar situation again.
"It's a strange situation when you're on the side of the pitch, because there are times where you're really attuned to the noise and there are other times where there are obviously chants going on that you can't quite distinguish," Southgate told Sky Sports.
"And in Bulgaria there were moments where it was really clear, when Tyrone Mings had the ball, and I think we were waiting anyway for the situation. In Montenegro that wasn't so clear. We felt a bit underprepared in Montenegro, we didn't even know anything about the UEFA protocols at that time, so we took it upon ourselves over the next period to really prepare ourselves for that night in Bulgaria as a group of players and as a staff.
"We had a long discussion with the players days before the game regarding how they saw it, what they wanted the approach to be, that they were clear we were there to support, that we had the backing of the FA regarding whatever we thought was necessary, but there's also a requirement to follow the regulations as well. We're in a competition, we've got to follow some of those guidelines.
"So we were in a position we wanted and we did the right thing, not just to do something to be seen to be trying to be the heroes and make a stance if it wasn't necessary, but as the evening was going on there were moments in the first half where we didn't think we'd get through the game.
"We had a long discussion at half-time, bearing in mind it really dominated the thinking - thankfully we were well ahead in the game we didn't have to think about the match by that point - and the players were very clear had there been another incident in that second half we were prepared to walk.
"I've heard people say there was abuse in the second half. None of the players were conscious of that, we weren't conscious of that, a big section of the ground were evicted at half-time, so we didn't feel on the night that the next step was appropriate.
"We wouldn't hesitate to go to the next step if we were in that situation again, and I agree, I don't think the protocol of allowing people almost two free hits is really acceptable.
"I agree we've always got to get further and frankly when we're at the point where we're having to take action on the pitch it's gone too far anyway. The situation's got to be addressed before we even get into the stadiums, in society."
Southgate said he had not spoken to any of the Three Lions' black and minority ethnic players about Floyd's death because he knew where they stood on the matter, adding: "It's occupied a lot of my thinking over the past week."
After Raheem Sterling spoke of the need for greater black representation at the top level in the Premier League and FA, and Kick It Out's Troy Townsend criticised the lack of diversity in coaching positions, Southgate said the time has come for significant and sweeping changes.
"I think that's clear across every level of the game and every level of society," he said.
"People have spoken brilliantly this week, [Sport England board member] Chris Grant is somebody who I've met a number of times, has lectured me on a couple of courses and went on about the institutional racism he feels exists in sporting bodies and sporting governance. I think all of those areas are where we've got to focus our attention.
"This feeling that Troy spoke about that people feel there aren't the opportunities there so young black people will refrain from taking qualifications or getting themselves prepared because they feel there is a ceiling to what's possible.
"We need their voices in those decision-making areas and we need to show people the opportunities do exist and that's got to be at every level of the game."
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