Ben White did not watch much football during his childhood in Dorset. It was never on in the house, his parents were just not interested. Does he have any World Cup memories? “Not that stick out,” the Arsenal and England defender says. And you will not find him flicking on a match in the evenings nowadays, either.
“Sitting down and watching a 90-minute game after I’ve trained all day and had four or five meetings about football … the last thing I want to do is watch more football,” he says.
On the day when Gianni Infantino sparked outrage and astonishment, when the issues around this World Cup pounded like a migraine and as the pressure in football terms mounted ahead of the big kick-off, White is the antidote.
Sitting under a tent at England’s training base and speaking in almost hushed tones, he discussed his laid-back temperament and how it had helped him rise to the top, dealing with rejection and season-on-season upheaval. It was difficult not to link it to an upbringing devoid of football tribalism and obsession, although the genes of his father, Barry, are also plainly at work.
“My old man is so laid-back it is ridiculous,” White says. “He would just go to work, a normal bloke, a gardener, and he hasn’t got any passion for any sport. When I got called up for the World Cup squad, he was like: ‘Well done.’ It was like he knew it was going to happen and it wasn’t a surprise for him. My mum is the opposite so I think I have got the balance between them.
“My temperament is one of the big reasons why I am where I am. I don’t go too high or too low. I learned from getting released [by Southampton at 16]. It was a rubbish day but I didn’t cry. It was on to the next thing and it is like that after a game if you didn’t play so well. After my first one for Arsenal against Brentford [at the start of last season] I was hammered. Now they are all praising me.”
White remembers how he would ride his bike down to the beach in Bournemouth as a kid to watch World Cups on the big screen but he always preferred to play himself, kicking about in his garden; ever active, carefree. “I don’t really look too far ahead,” he says. “I’m a day-to day-person. I wake up, look after that day and try to have the best one ever. I’m not someone that has anything planned for in normal life. If I want to go somewhere for dinner on the day, I’ll be going.
“I didn’t think about the World Cup at all until it was close. If you’re so concerned on something, it normally doesn’t happen. Things will be what they will be and you deal with it when it comes.”
It would be a mistake to think that White does not have rare inner steel, understated self-assurance, and it is suddenly visible when he discusses how settled he feels in his life, which has provided the springboard for his excellent Arsenal form.
In each of the past five seasons, he has played for a different club, with loan moves from Brighton to play in League Two for Newport in 2017-18, then in League One for Peterborough and, after that, for Leeds in the Championship, where he won promotion. He stayed at Brighton in the Premier League in 2020-21 before moving to Arsenal for £50m.
“Coming to League Two,” White says. “You go to a club and they are like: ‘Who is this guy?’ Then I go and smash the season and get player of the season. Then I go to a League One club and the same happens. Then I go to Leeds; no one has a clue who I am and I play every single minute. I believe in myself. I don’t think I have done it an easy way.”
White says he has felt the benefit of being “back-to-back at a club” for the first time in his senior career. Repurposed by Mikel Arteta, as a right-back, the adaptation has been seamless; the memory of the Brentford game and his initial difficulties in winning over the Arsenal support faded.
“Looking back at Brentford, I did not actually do that badly,” White says. “I won half the duels and people said I got bullied. It is an opinion and they change a lot. It is always like that and they [the pundits] are paid for an opinion. Sometimes it is rubbish.”
White is on the fringes of the England squad but he offers an option at right-back, centre-half and the right of a defensive three. “At Arsenal, we build up in a three so I’m playing centre-back every week but just on some occasions I’m flying forwards,” he says.
Could White emerge later in the tournament? He is on top of his game and ready, although he will keep it chilled in between training sessions. How is he dealing with the boredom of camp? “Sunbathing,” he replies. “I sunbathed this morning. There is not loads to do. You rest and there’s recovery stuff to do. Early to bed and watch a movie. It is very nice around the pool. Very relaxing.”