GAreth Southgate believes his England players are ready to embrace the pressure of being among the World Cup favorites and win the tournament in Qatar this year.
The England manager arrived here for the draw claiming that after reaching the semi-finals in Russia four years ago and the final of Euro 2020, his team had earned “respectability” on the international stage and were ready to take the final step.
“What have we said to the team this week?” Southgate said. “That if we can get to a semi-final, we can get to a final, and we did. If we can get to the end, we can win. That’s clear.” I have added that England had narrowed “the gap between expectation and what is possible”.
England are in Pot 1 with host nation Qatar, Brazil, Belgium, Argentina, Spain, Portugal and holders France.
“We are one of the teams that could win this tournament,” Southgate said. “You only have to look through Pot 1 and think there are a number of teams – Portugal and France would be in that, they’ve both [recently] won major tournaments and they’ve both won the Nations League.
“And then there are a couple of teams in Pot 2 as well that are going to be a real threat. That’s putting aside the fact any number of teams can beat an opponent on a given day. That’s the jeopardy of a World Cup.”
England have suffered from that “jeopardy” in the past. The 2010 draw in South Africa delivered an apparently comfortable group which provoked the infamous Sun headline “EASY”, standing for England, Algeria, Slovenia and “Yanks” (the United States). But it proved far from that as England struggled through and went out in the last 16 against Germany. Four years later, they were knocked out in Brazil before some nations had played their second group games.
Now, for Southgate, Qatar represents a chance for England to add to their limited showreel of success. “It’s very special, the pinnacle,” he said. “The World Cup is still the ultimate prize you can win. As a player there is no trophy bigger.”
So England will be in the not unfamiliar situation of being among those expected to win, what has to be different is how they handle it. There has to be expectation rather than entitlement; confidence rather than the arrogance that has so often turned the world against England and their fans and been so counterproductive on the pitch. At the same time, there is nothing to fear.
“We’ve definitely got respectability and I think we will be a team other teams wouldn’t look forward to playing,” Southgate said, with England’s only defeat in their past 22 games in all competitions being the Euro final loss after a penalty shoot -out against Italy.
“But that’s a double-edged sword because some teams are going to prepare differently for you. You’re there to be shot at and they are going to have a specific way of playing to try and stop you, but some will be a little bit fearful of you and might allow you more of the game.
“So what really matters is how it makes us feel about ourselves – and the evidence of the performances and the results gives the players belief and confidence, which is a hugely important quality.”
As ever, there is danger in the drawing. The worst-case scenario? It could be a group containing Germany, Senegal and Ecuador. Or it could be Holland, South Korea and Cameroon. Whoever it is, Football Association chair Debbie Hewitt is unlikely to copy one of her predecessors, Greg Dyke, who made a cut-throat gesture when England were drawn with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica in Brazil.
It will be a major shock if England do not progress but it is unlikely to be easy. This is the first World Cup to be held in the Arab world and will be hosted in the winter with just eight days between the Premier League being paused and Qatar kicking off at the Lusail Iconic Stadium on Nov 21, which will also host the final 27 days later.
Will England be there? Can they cope? “If you want to be in big jobs then you’ve got to live with the expectation,” Southgate said. “We have to accept there’s a belief, and part of winning is being able to handle that. When you’ve got evidence you can get results then the gap between expectation and what is possible is smaller and that makes the team less anxious. We know that the team are further on their journey of learning from those big-match experiences than we were before, so I think that helps you handle it in an even better way.”