Gareth Southgate says England are surprised that 36,000 spectators will be allowed inside the Puskas Arena in Budapest for Saturday’s match against Hungary, which is nominally being staged behind closed doors.
The Nations League fixture is one of five that Hungary are required to host under sanctions, two of them suspended, after repeated misconduct from their supporters. Uefa handed down a three-game stadium closure in June for discriminatory behaviour at Euro 2020, while Fifa added two more in September after racist abuse clouded England’s last visit in the World Cup qualifiers.
Hungary’s 67,000-capacity ground will be more than half-full, though, after the local FA were able to exploit Uefa regulations that allow an unlimited number of under-14s to attend such games. One adult is allowed to accompany every 10 children, meaning around 3,300 could be inside the stadium. England will make use of the loophole when they serve the first of their own two-game stadium ban against Italy on 11 June, when around 3,000 children could be watching at Molineux, but the prospect of a significantly bigger crowd in Budapest has raised eyebrows.
“I think we’re all surprised,” Southgate said. “But we’re inviting children into our stadium so I wasn’t really clear on the rules of any of it. I don’t know what the [crowd size] should or shouldn’t be. We’ve got to make sure we’re consistent in our beliefs, the stand we take as a team, the fact we’re united on [discrimination and racism] being unacceptable, and it’s for other people to administer sanctions.
“Once we’re administering sanctions it’s gone too far anyway so the key is education, and the young people in the stadium hopefully pick up that message tomorrow.”
There is a precedent for matches to be contested in such conditions but there is also one for them to take an unsavoury turn. When Rangers visited Sparta Prague for a Europa League tie in September 2021, the Czech club were supported by around 10,000 minors despite a two-game Uefa ban for previous racist abuse by fans. That night the Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara was booed from the stands, six months after being racially abused by Slavia Prague’s Ondrej Kudela in an incident that resulted in the defender being banned for 10 games. England will hope there is no repeat of last year’s events in Hungary, where Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham were targeted with monkey chants during their 4-0 win and players were booed for taking the knee.
“I would imagine Hungary will feel the same way we do about having restrictions on the home games and they won’t want it to happen again,” Southgate said. “Everybody learns from every experience they have been through. Our players, after that, just want to focus on the football. They played incredibly well that night and want to do so again.”
Southgate was asked whether England, whose ban is a result of the crowd trouble at Wembley around the Euro 2020 final, are effectively being punished more than Hungary given the smaller attendance expected in Wolverhampton.
“I don’t know whether we’ve got it right ourselves, because you could say behind closed doors is behind closed doors,” he said. “What the FA recognised was that there was an opportunity to invite local football clubs, so they felt they should take that opportunity. I don’t think we should spend our time and energy focusing on how other people are dealing with it.
“I think some of the safeguarding rules are slightly different from country to country. I know that was a bit of a concern at our place; it sounds easy to just bring schoolchildren in but that actually needs quite a big operation. We are prepared for whatever tomorrow, and it’s our job to get the football right.”
Southgate made it clear he expects a test closer to the one Hungary provided in October, when they held England to a 1-1 draw at Wembley, than the rout that transpired at the away fixture a month previously. He will have to plan for the game, as well as Tuesday’s outing against Germany in Munich, without Phil Foden after the Manchester City player tested positive for Covid-19.
There is hope Foden will have recovered for the two games in Wolverhampton, where Hungary await again after the Italy tie. Sterling has been struggling with illness and may not be involved in Budapest while the game comes too soon for Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guéhi, who are injured.
New call-ups Jarrod Bowen and James Justin are both expected to receive their first caps over the next 10 days. “I won’t hesitate to play them,” Southgate said. “They’ve both settled in really well. They have both come into the squad looking as though they want to show what they can do, rather than tentatively dipping a toe into the water and seeing how it all works. I’ve seen enough from them in training to see that they can fit in.”