Gareth Southgate said nothing was impossible for England and urged his players to embrace the excitement of a World Cup before they face Iran in their opening game on Monday afternoon.
England’s head coach struck a positive tone as he shifted his focus to matters on the pitch, insisting his players should feel pride at representing their country on the world stage despite the controversy surrounding Qatar’s hosting of the tournament, and he was keen to move on from the negativity that has stalked his side for much of this year.
Southgate comes into this World Cup under major pressure after six games without a win. He faced fierce criticism after England’s relegation from their Nations League group in September, with the negativity summed up by fans booing him after the recent defeats against Hungary and Italy, and he is all too aware of the importance of making a strong start.
Even so Southgate was in good spirits before England’s opener in Group B, talking up their prospects and laughing off reports of Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino wanting his job.
“Maybe we’ve made the impossible look possible,” Southgate said. “It’s exciting for other people and I can understand that. We want England to be competitive for years to come and I believe that our academy system has got that.
“There are challenges within that because we’re back to 31% of the league being eligible for England and only four or five exports of a high level. There are still some challenges for us in terms of development and opportunity for players. But we have also got some good players and we should be competitive for the next six, eight years with this group.”
The buzz around England has dipped since their runs to the semi-finals of the previous World Cup and the Euro 2020 final. Yet Southgate is optimistic. Eric Dier has acknowledged that some of the excitement has been stripped away by the issue of Qatar’s human rights record, but the mood within the England camp has felt relaxed.
“What we have tried to do in the last seven years is excite them about going to a World Cup and that has been balanced about the topics they have been asked to discuss, which are very serious,” Southgate said.
“There is a lot of negativity around the tournament and I want them to understand the unique honor of representing England at a major tournament.
“We have tried to talk about those things, make it special. The work on the training pitch has been really focused. We have sensed a nice balance of them being in the relaxed environment of the hotel but a real good competitiveness on the pitch.”
Southgate has tried to remove himself from the negativity. “The brief time I’m looking at what the headlines are in the mornings I’m generally burying it anyway because it’s not going to help me. Even more than ever because everything understandably has a slight negative feel about the tournament in general. That’s not a space I want to be in personally because I can’t afford to be. I’ve got to be thinking about how we win this for our country.”
The message was that fans and players should be able to enjoy football. “I genuinely don’t know what the reality of that back home is,” Southgate said. “I know how everything seems to be being steered but I don’t know if that’s how the public feel. Without being in the pubs and bars and working man’s clubs I don’t know. I would imagine a lot of them are just hoping to get on with the football.
“It would be wrong to say that is definite. We are looking forward to it, the players are hugely motivated for it. They recognize everything else. But they shouldn’t be embarrassed about being excited. It’s not their decision that we are playing here. They should now focus on what they can control and that’s our training and performances.”
James Maddison, who missed training again on Sunday with a knee injury, will be absent against Iran and the game is likely to come too soon for Kyle Walker after his return from groin surgery.
The challenge for Southgate will be taking the game to Carlos Queiroz’s side, who are notoriously hard to break down, and he is considering starting with a back four instead of a back three. Bukayo Saka could edge out Phil Foden for a place on the right-wing.
Saka made an excellent impact off the bench during England’s 3-3 draw with Germany in September, creating a fine goal for Mason Mount. Southgate felt that England, who toiled after taking the chance to experiment with individuals and tactics last summer, were closer to their true selves against Germany.
Along with focusing on tactical preparations, England have placed a heavy emphasis on acclimatising to the Qatari heat during training. The session on Sunday was scheduled to mirror the game on Monday, with kick-off at 4pm local time, and conditions were cooler than in previous days. The air conditioning will also be on in the stadium.
“We know the quality of our opponents,” Southgate said. “Under Carlos at the last World Cup they were a very organized team against very big opponents. We have to be the very best version of ourselves to win.”