SOFIA (AFP) – England manager Gareth Southgate said his side made a statement by deciding to complete a 6-0 Euro 2020 qualifying win over Bulgaria after the match was twice halted by racist chanting.
The visitors led 2-0 through early goals from Marcus Rashford and Ross Barkley when play was first stopped and an announcement made to supporters that the game could be suspended if offensive chanting continued.
Once restarted, England quickly made it 3-0 through Barkley before a second stoppage as Croatian referee Ivan Bebek held discussions with players and coaching staff from both sides.
Raheem Sterling then netted twice either side of half-time before Harry Kane rounded off the scoring to take England to the brink of qualification.
“We know it is an unacceptable situation,” Southgate told British broadcaster ITV.
“I think we’ve managed to make two statements really by winning the game, but also we have raised the awareness of everybody to the situation.
“The game was stopped twice and I know for some people that won’t be enough, but I think we were as a group on board with that process.”
In a statement, The English Football Association said their players “were subjected to abhorrent racist chanting” and called on UEFA to investigate immediately.
Tyrone Mings was one of those targeted on his England debut. The Aston Villa defender believed that stopping the game did have the desired effect of reducing racist abuse in the second half.
“The correct steps that were taken definitely helped,” said Mings.
“We made the decision at half-time to come out and play the game which we thought was the right decision. If anything else happened, we would have taken appropriate action.”
A comprehensive victory was the perfect riposte for Southgate’s men to their shock 2-1 defeat at the Czech Republic on Friday and opens up a three-point lead at the top of Group A.
However, the focus was again on the stands as another England match blighted by racism from opposition fans.
After several English players suffered racist abuse in a qualifier away to Montenegro in March, Southgate had prepared his side to follow UEFA’s three-step protocol for reporting racist incidents that can lead to matches being abandoned.
A section of 5,000 seats at the Vasil Levski National Stadium was already closed for the game after racist incidents during games against Kosovo and the Czech Republic in June.
“I have to say the officials were onto everything very quickly,” added Southgate.
“We reported everything immediately when we heard things, we had constant communication with the fourth official and the referee.”
On the field, Southgate’s decision to make five changes from the side beaten in Prague on Friday was fully vindicated.
Rashford was one of those recalled put his Manchester United woes behind him by smashing the opener into the roof of the net after just seven minutes before Barkley tapped home a second at the back post.
The first stage of UEFA’s protocol followed as the game was temporarily stopped and a warning played over the loudspeaker in both Bulgarian and English that the match could be suspended after monkey chants were aimed at England players.
That warning was not heeded as after Barkley headed home Kane’s cross, there was a second, longer stoppage in play.
A number of Bulgarian ultras were then ejected from the stadium.
When play did got back underway there were six minutes of stoppage time added and the visitors used it to increase their advantage when Kane crossed for Sterling to this time apply an easy finish.
Southgate’s men could have scored plenty more in the second-half against the dispirited hosts on a terrible night all round for Bulgarian football.
Sterling’s second arrived midway through the second-half with Kane again the creator before the England captain finally got on the scoresheet himself five minutes from time.
England now need just a point from their final two qualifiers against Montenegro and Kosovo next month to seal their place at next year’s Euros.