Gareth Southgate says England won’t walk off pitch for racism
England manager says players have made it clear that they do not want ‘to be the story’
Raheem Sterling celebrates his goal against Montenegro. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty
Gareth Southgate says England’s footballers will not walk off the pitch in protest on the next occasion they are subjected to racial abuse, having held a series of conversations with his players in which they made it clear to the manager they did not want “to be the story”.
Two months since England’s Euro 2020 qualifier in Montenegro was tarnished by monkey chants from some of the home crowd, Southgate and his coaching staff, together with senior figures at the Football Association, have been deliberating about what action the players should take if the same happens again. The manager has spoken to Danny Rose, Raheem Sterling and Callum Hudson-Odoi, as well as a number of others, and not one backed the idea of leaving the pitch.
Instead, the players have been encouraged to lodge a complaint to the referee, or ask the coaching staff to do so on their behalf, as soon as they hear anything, rather than wait until after the match. Southgate is aware not everyone will agree with that stance but has decided he has to go with the wishes of his players and place trust in the authorities who, he acknowledges, have often left the impression they are not taking the issue seriously enough.
“In Montenegro we picked it [the abuse] up only in the last five minutes, so there’s a difference between that and if things happen earlier in a game,” he said. “We’ve discussed ways we can make the players more comfortable, or that we can manage, if they hear things earlier. How would we report those more easily? We’ve encouraged them to speak up when it happens.
“They are clear they don’t want the story at the end to be about them as individuals. They want football to be the story. But they have had an opportunity to speak [publicly] and have an impact that way. In terms of walking off the pitch, that isn’t something they are all on board with. In fact, none of the current team has expressed that as a preference. The bit that isn’t clear to me if we did that – apart from the question of whether we would be penalised – is what would happen then? It would be a statement, but what would that lead to?”
He added: “There are lots of statements that have been made and haven’t led to change and reform. For me, the broader discussion around racism – education – is key. A lot of our players and former players have spoken brilliantly about that in recent months.”
Nevertheless, Southgate is aware that many people feel his players have an obligation to refuse to play if there is racist abuse. There has already been a 24-hour boycott of social media, organised by the Professional Footballers’ Association, but many anti-racism campaigners believe the time has come for England to be more proactive. Southgate thinks differently and, speaking at a press conference to announce his squad for the Nations League, it was put to him that England might be missing the opportunity to send a powerful message to the rest of the sporting world.
“It is hypothetical at the moment because we are not in that situation but I am back to [my previous answer],” he said. “I don’t think we need any more symbolic statements that this is unacceptable. It is totally unacceptable, but I am still not clear [what it would achieve]. What change will that enforce?
“Somehow we have to enforce that change and education on society, and I think we must strive to do that. I know there is a wide variation of opinions from people who think this is the right thing and people who are less sure. My players’ feeling is the most important thing for me.”
Southgate added: “I’ve spent a fair bit of time speaking with Raheem, Danny, Callum. We went through a long process with all of our staff and will pick it up with the players again. I hope – and I feel from what they have told me – they feel well supported. In terms of the care, they know where we stand and that we’re there for them.”
Uefa fined Montenegro’s football federation £17,250 and ordered it to play the next home game in an empty stadium. “There’s a one-match ban, which is significant for any country, but there will always be a view that it should be harsher,” Southgate said. “It’s hard to disagree on the one hand, but it’s also hard to pitch those sanctions at the right level for one country that might have less revenue than bigger countries.
“My priority is: do my players feel supported from within their dressing room by their own federation? I believe that to be the case. Can we then affect things on a broader scale? I think we’ve tried to do that with the players and the staff [speaking out]. The chairman [Gred Clarke]put that at the top of his agenda with a speech to Uefa. We’re trying to make changes in the right areas and we have to follow the right procedures.”