This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2022 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 20 November.
It is hard not to conclude that it is now or never for Gareth Southgate’s England. They have come agonisingly close under the 52-year-old, reaching the semi-finals of the last World Cup and losing to Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 final, and if those near misses are viewed through an optimistic lens there is an argument that glory is attainable if the pieces all fall in the right place.
After all, while recent form has been unconvincing, this remains a highly talented group. The creative options are enviable and Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham are two of the finest young midfielders around. Harry Kane is one of the best strikers in the world.
Still, though, the sense persists that a cycle is coming to an end. Problems have mounted this year – the barren Nations League run, Harry Maguire’s struggles, injuries to Reece James and Kyle Walker a potential headache on the right side of the defence – and it could well be time for Southgate to depart, even if his deal runs until the end of 2024. “I know I will be judged on what happens at that World Cup,” the head coach says. “I am not arrogant enough to think that my contract is going to protect me.”
Southgate accepts the defining moment is approaching. England are under pressure to attack. There will be fury if they limp out in timid fashion.
But do not write off this squad yet. There were signs of life during the recent 3-3 draw with Germany and a group containing Iran, Wales and the USA should be negotiated with relative ease. In Southgate’s view some of the panic is overblown. He has proven that he is tournament savvy and, given a fair wind, England have the potential to go all the way.
Is Gareth Southgate too negative? What’s his problem with Trent Alexander-Arnold? Is he … a woke fraud? Or is he actually the manager who lifted England off the floor, made the waistcoat fashionable, offered moral authority on a range of difficult topics and almost ended 55 years of hurt? As ever there are shades of grey. Southgate is not perfect, he can be too cautious and a lot of fans have turned on him. But he has done a good job overall and still commands the respect of the dressing room. Even the boo-boys must admit Southgate could still be The One.
Much will rest on Harry Kane’s level. The captain has enjoyed a long injury-free run and been in goalscoring form for Tottenham. England will hope he is in tip-top shape. Working with a new physio has strengthened Kane’s body and an added motivation for the 29-year-old is that he is two behind Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 goals for England. It would be a surprise if Kane doesn’t overtake Rooney in Qatar.
Declan Rice is a mandatory pick. The West Ham captain lets others play and his knack of being in the right place at the right time is an invaluable defensive asset for England. This defence cannot afford to be without Rice’s protection. His ball-winning abilities are second to none, while his positional discipline should allow Bellingham to push forward. Throw in an efficient passing range and it is clear to see why Southgate has come to rely on Rice.
The Football Association has vowed to lobby Fifa on creating new labour laws in the gulf state, has called for any worker injury or death to be compensated and will push for a Migrant Workers’ Centre to be created in Qatar. However there have been no condemnatory statements from Southgate or Kane. Jordan Henderson called Qatar’s human rights record “shocking, disappointing and horrendous” after he and his fellow players received a detailed briefing on the situation. But any visible protest during the tournament is likely to be limited to Kane wearing a rainbow-coloured “OneLove” captain’s armband.
It does what it says on the tin. The origins of the lyrics and the tune are unknown, other than the fact they date back to the 17th century, but everyone knows the meaning. The only thing to be aware of this time is a slight tweak in the wording: following the death of the Queen in September the players will have to remember to sing “God Save The King” instead. It’s the best way of ensuring King Charles sends them victorious.
All-time cult hero
It’s been 32 years since Paul Gascoigne broke down in tears in Turin. The midfielder captured the imagination during Italia 90 and he could not hide his devastation when he was cautioned during England’s semi-final defeat to Germany. The booking would have ruled Gazza out of the final and his inconsolable reaction made people warm to him. He was that rare thing, a maverick talent who actually became a force for England, and nothing demonstrated his ability more than his stunning volley against Scotland at Euro 96. If only his studs had been longer when England lost to Germany in the last four again …
Jacob Steinberg writes for the Guardian. Follow him here on Twitter.