With the World Cup now just days away, Gareth Southgate has issued a rallying call to his players, calling on them to make Qatar the “best” period for English football.
The Three Lions are bidding to capture the World Cup for the first time in 56 years having agonisingly lost the European Championships final on penalties to Italy last summer and having reached the last-four of the World Cup in 2018.
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“I think we understand the need to comment on the off-field things that surround this tournament, but we want the players to feel that enthusiasm that they’ve had since kids.
“That struck me when I was speaking to them over the last few days, for better or worse, about going to a World Cup and what it means. We want to fuel that.
“[In] the first couple of days, we won’t be on the training pitch bar a couple that will need to do something. We just want them to transition from a hectic club schedule to thinking about England.
“We want to talk to them about the fact that this, whatever happens over the next four weeks, has been the second-best period for English football. We can make it the best.
“It’s the challenge mindset. How can we take the supporters on another journey, like the one they loved four years ago and loved last summer? That’s why we do it and that’s what makes playing for England special.”
England will get their campaign under way on Monday, November 21, against Iran, with Wales and the USA also in their group.
The Three Lions come into the tournament on a poor run of form after suffering relegation from the top-tier of the Nations League.
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But Southgate does not see the recent backlash against him as relevant. “I don’t think what it was for me is important at this stage,” he said.
“My only focus is, how do I help this team to have a brilliant tournament? And I think we’ve got a great chance. We’ve perhaps, as we did before Russia, qualified and managed expectations at the same time.
“I know what this group of players have been capable of. They’ve been to the deep reaches of tournaments. They know what that feels like. They know they can do that again. What people say or think about me is irrelevant. My job is to free the players of any of that.”
There are big expectations of the whole squad but there will be particular attention paid to Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham, still only 19.
With nine goals for his club and having been named Edin Terzic’s captain in October, he is expected to partner Declan Rice against Iran.
“He has tremendous maturity for his age,” Southgate said. “Mature in how he works, how he trains, how he speaks. He competes – it is probably the thing we love about him more than anything else. That has a line at times and undoubtedly there will be moments, while he is young, that it will be crossed.
“But he’s a very exciting player and he’s one we’ve got a good body of experience into early.
“He went to the Euros – we thought it was a good experience for him, but he wanted more. We were thinking for a 17-year-old: ‘This is a really good transition.’ But his mentality is: ‘No, no, no.’ He wants to start, he wants to take corners, he wants to captain the team.”
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