Bulgaria manager Krasimir Balakov believes English football has a bigger problem with racism than they do.
The build-up to Monday’s Euro 2020 qualifier in Sofia has been dominated by concerns over possible racist abuse at Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski.
England players were victims of racism on their last visit to Bulgaria in 2011 and Gareth Southgate briefed the squad about the UEFA protocol on dealing with such issues at the start of the international break.
The players have also been speaking about the issue, which enraged Bulgarian football Union president Borislav Mikhaylov to the point that he said English players should face sanctions from UEFA if they continue to talk about the possibility of racist abuse in Sofia.
Mikhaylov spoke of “unjust” comments being made by England and manager Balakov, whose initial answer on the matter was that he did not want to talk about the topic, shone a light on the visitors’ own issues with racism.
“What I can say is that I don’t think we have a problem,” he said.
“In the Bulgarian championship, we have a lot of players of different ethnicities and skin colour. I don’t think that we have this big problem like, for example, England do.
“I would like to focus on football because at the end of the day we’re all civilized Europeans and we’re all working for this sport and that’s all the matters.”
Asked to clarify his remark on England, Balakov said: “What I meant was that in the Bulgarian championship we’ve not had such problems.
“While there have been incidents in various levels of English football involving racism, which I consider something normal because it’s a big country with a very diverse population.
“But we don’t have this problem in Bulgaria, I can assure you of that.”
Southgate has repeatedly said that England need to get their own house in order and recently referenced the racist abuse at the National League clash between Hartlepool and Dover.
Pushed on whether England players have anything to be worried about, Balakov said: “Once again, it’s not an issue that has happened recently in the national team games, meaning racist chants or whatever.
“I would once again advise people to think and talk about football because this is the reason why we’re actually here. And we should not discuss something that has not even happened yet.”
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Callum Hudson-Odoi has revealed England team-mate Raheem Sterling is his go-to guy for advice on his game.
Hudson-Odoi burst on to the scene last season, becoming the youngest ever Three Lions international starter when he played against Montenegro in March.
Sterling has taken the Chelsea winger, still only 18, and Jadon Sancho under his wing in the England set-up as he performs a more senior role in the squad.
Hudson-Odoi is in the early stages of a comeback from a serious Achilles injury and is in the under-21s squad this week, but he has still been contacting the Manchester City star for guidance.
“Raheem is a top player. He’s scoring so many goals, assisting so many goals,” the teenager said.
“I’d say he is one of the best wingers in the world right now.
“When I watch him play it’s an amazing feeling because he likes to help and contribute to the team as much as possible.
“I look at him as a player and say if I can be like that, get the goals he’s getting and the way he’s playing for the team, it could be amazing, not just for me but the team as well.
“When I have the opportunity, I do speak to Raheem. I ask him, ‘How do you get all the goals you are getting, how do you work for the team, how do you impact in big games?’
“He gives you the best advice possible. He’ll tell me to keep working hard, he’ll tell me how to get the goals, how to get the assists.
“For a person like that to help you, it’s an amazing feeling. Obviously, he’s in a different team so he doesn’t have to do that. But he does because he wants everyone to do well.
“But a player like him, it’s a massive thing to know he’s in the national team and I can chat to him and say what’s good and what’s not good. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Hudson-Odoi is suddenly finding himself with someone to talk to at his club as well, following Frank Lampard’s appointment in the summer.
The winger did not get much game time last season under Maurizio Sarri, leading him to hand in a transfer request amid interest from Bayern Munich.
But things have changed as he now has a new contract and someone he feels he can approach.
“He is an amazing manager, he was an amazing player as well,” Hudson-Odoi said.
“He gives you a lot of encouragement, he loves to boost the players.
“He tells you if you are doing well, if you are not doing well he will tell you as well so you can work on your game and improve, but it is never bad criticism, it is always constructive.
“He always wants to help and push you to become a better player and that is what you need from a coach. You need the coach to push you and keep you working hard. That’s what he does.
“We can go to him and he will tell us what we need to do to improve our game and what we can do to become better players.
“We like that from a manager, he gives us opportunities to come and speak to him and ask him questions if we are not happy.
“It’s a nice feeling to have around the camp to know we have a manager who can speak about it.”
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Christian Eriksen insists uncertainty surrounding his and some of his Tottenham team-mates’ future is not the cause of their horrible start to the season.
Spurs have won just three of their 11 games so far in this campaign, losing to League Two Colchester in the Carabao Cup, thumped 7-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League and going down 3-0 at Brighton on Saturday.
Boss Mauricio Pochettino, who is finding himself under pressure just four months after leading the club to the Champions League final, has said that it will take time for Spurs to be united after several of his players had “different agendas”.
Eriksen was one of those as he was expected to leave Spurs this summer, having said that he was looking for a new challenge, but has now entered the final year of his contract after the big move to Europe he was hoping for never materialised.
Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are also out of contract in the summer, Danny Rose almost joined Watford and Serge Aurier and Victor Wanyama were nearly sold.
Yet all six players remain part of the group, but Eriksen, who is not interested in signing a new deal at Spurs, says that is not an issue.
“It doesn’t matter at all. Everyone is professional and in all clubs there is talk of players going away,” he told Danish news outlet Ekstra Bladet while on international duty.
“That side of the matter has no bearing on how we have performed so far this season.
“If I, as a football player, took all the rumours to me, I would float on a cloud. But I know that it can’t all be true.
“It does not affect me what is written.”
Despite that insistence, Eriksen has been a shadow of the player that has seen him linked with the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Paris St Germain and has found himself in and out of Pochettino’s team.
He does accept, however, that he is having his toughest time since joining the club in 2013.
“It’s definitely my hardest time right now at Tottenham,” he said.
“The first year when I came was probably a bit up and down, but since Pochettino came in 2014 it has been a success story.
“Expectations for us are at a completely different level now. We have to win every time and it’s the same feeling we have as players as well.
“We as players must try to keep all the negative things completely out.
“But the reason for our results is actually hard to answer. We can’t close the matches, even though we are ahead. But we have also been unlucky.”
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