England boss Gareth Southgate urges his players to be bold in World Cup qualifying and show their confidence on the road to Qatar
- England face Andorra and Poland this week in World Cup qualifiers
- Southgate says they need to prepare for Qatar, which starts in 15 months
- England will be among the favourites after reaching the final of Euro 2020
There was a time when those in and about England squads were fearful of talking about qualification for tournaments. Preparation might go on behind the scenes but no one dared mention them.
After all, World Cups had been missed by the national team in 1974, 1978 and 1994 and no one outside of England seemed to grieve our absence especially. European Championship in 1984 and 2008 thrived without the presence of an England team.
It is easy to forgot quite how precarious mere qualification for major tournaments has been for England.
England manager Gareth Southgate with Declan Rice during training on Saturday
But something has changed. There is no hiding behind false modesty now. England have one of the best teams in the world. Amid all the anguish of defeat in the Euro 2020 final — and it may be several years before such an opportunity presents itself again — no serious judge of world football would dispute that this England team ought to be among the favourites for Qatar 2022.
The shift in perception was made clear by Southgate, talking freely on Saturday about how England need to gear up for a tournament, which starts in less than 15 months.
‘In the past we were worried about preparing [for tournaments] because it might bring bad luck, or whatever,’ said Southgate. ‘Whereas we’ve got to be bold and prepare as if we’re going to get there but then make sure that we get the performances right to ensure we do.’
Of course, he also included all the appropriate caveats, such as the team’s primary focus being on Andorra at Wembley on Sunday and Poland in Warsaw on Wednesday. ‘But in the background we’re always making sure plans are in place in the positive outlook that we can get to the finals and need to prepare.’
The fall-out from a riotous and ultimately disappointing night in July at Wembley, an evening forged in hope but which ended in a mob storming the gates and players subjected to racism, is still being picked over.
England remain focused on the games against Andorra on Sunday and Poland on Wednesday
The reality, though, is that there is little time for the football debrief. Southgate has five more international camps before Qatar, where a late November start means there will be little preparation time for players whisked away from a Premier League season. The World Cup holding camp starts now.
‘Really from day one of this get-together the message has been that what they did in the summer was a step forward and was something they should be very proud of,’ said Southgate. ‘But our aim is consistent progress and performance. And sustainable success. We have shown that over three or four years. We have learnt from difficult nights we’ve had, whether that was away in the Czech Republic for example, or Holland in the Nations League.
‘But if we want to be serious contenders for the World Cup we cannot waste a moment. We cannot miss an opportunity to improve. We must push ourselves. We have to have a desire to get better. Myself as a coach, the players, the staff in the roles they do. Because the teams that didn’t do so well in the summer will be licking their wounds and looking at everything.
‘There’s a risk that they look harder for those opportunities to improve. If we have any complacency, it would be an error because we’ve got talent and we have shown positive performances and earned good results. But that can disappear very quickly.
‘The level of competition in Europe alone is extremely high and you can see 10 teams across the last three competitions have reached the semi-finals. Add Brazil, Argentina and the top south American countries into that and it highlights the difficulties of staying in that upper echelon.’
Southgate has urged his England players to show their confidence on the road to Qatar
Southgate has been at his techiest this week when pressed on whether he could have been more positive in the final against Italy. Certainly among the coaching community there was concern that he had set up 3-4-3 in a final, that he was late to respond to Roberto Mancini’s changes and that the players shrunk from their task when taking a 1-0 goal lead. It happened against Croatia in the World Cup semi-final and it happened against Italy.
But France lost Euro 2016 in Paris and won the 2018 World Cup in Russia, though sport does not always provide scripted fairy-tale conclusions. Telling these stories is a way of applying meaning to bitterness of defeat on penalties.
Southgate said: ‘It’s easy to say things like, “Oh, we can go to Qatar now and win”. It’s a bit glib, really. That’s a long journey.’
It is a journey, though, whose destination is already in view.