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The England squad spent a significant part of the eve of their opening World Cup 2022 game discussing whether or not to take the knee. There was some debate, as well as the need to navigate “Qatari politics, Iranian politics”, according to Gareth Southgate.
It again illustrated how different this World Cup is, and has undeniably played into a more muted build-up back home. Even this opening match is against an Iranian team that might have been banished from the tournament under a different Fifa regime. Gareth Southgate doesn’t think any of this is an issue for his players, though.
“I haven’t felt the need to get them up for it.”
They’re well versed in these big games. So much so that they deeply feel they have the experience now to go a step further and win this World Cup.
That will come across in the dressing room. Every group has its routine, but there’s something rarefied about a big match, and especially a World Cup match.
“It’s different,” Southgate says.
A majority tend to be calm. Some of those like to be left alone to get in the zone. Some, such as Jordan Pickford, want to be riled up.
Southgate will give one last talk about the opposition, with key points reduced to their most memorable forms. In this case, it will be the potential weak points in a deeply drilled Carlos Queiroz defence.
The manager will keep it focused, before Harry Kane gathers the team together for one last huddle.
It does feel like England are going to need a bit more fire than normal. Monday’s meeting at the Khalifa International Stadium has all of the elements to be – as one source within Southgate’s camp put – “a dog of a game”.
Queiroz’s best ability as a coach is defensive organisation. It was how Manchester United got past Barcelona in the 2007-08 Champions League semi-finals, with Sir Alex Ferguson essentially leaving his Portuguese assistant to it. It was how Iran pushed Lionel Messi to a spectacular stoppage-time winner in the 2014 group stage. And it was how they came within a mere point of knocking both Spain and Portugal out of the 2018 World Cup.
Such a history, as well as Queiroz’s fundamental football look, meant his pre-game line about the importance of an “adventure attitude” raised a smile – since their football often doesn’t.
Iran did have a bit more fizz about them in that World Cup, especially with the fizz of an attacker like Sardar Azmoun – who made a point of criticising the state – but they remain difficult to watch. That makes them very difficult to play against.
It is why Southgate’s formation could be more influential than most international games, especially those against sides outside the elite. If he does go with the divisive back three in order to hone it for more testing games, it is going to need the wing-backs playing as wingers. This is where Bukayo Saka might be more justified in that position, because the pattern of the game inevitably means he has to be much higher.
Southgate is already conscious of the need for some of the quicker-footed players anyway such as Sterling, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish. This is going to be a game of tight spaces, and very little freedom around the Iranian box.
Phil Foden could be key to England in Qatar
It will also require patience.
All of this is only sharpened by what has been, well, a blunt year for England. Performances have been poor. Goals have been scarce, with only four scored in six Nations League games.
As far as the players are concerned, though, that has no relation to this World Cup. Southgate almost said it publicly.
“Tournament football is different,” he said. “We remind ourselves of the privilege of being here and the uniqueness of it. Only 16 England teams have ever been to a World Cup. A lot of the staff and players are at their second. Raheem is at his third. You have to remind yourself of this moment in time.”
This is a tournament England have long been building up to, in a way that goes beyond the cycle of Southgate’s team. It has been the target for the Football Association since the 2012 opening of St George’s Park.
The England players feel they can do it. They’ve talked about lifting the trophy. They’ve imagined it.
They have to overcome the reality of a tournament to do it. Few matches are as “real” as one against Queiroz’s Iran, in a game of profound political context.