‘After a while it eats you up’: Kevin De Bruyne on dealing with the spotlight, life at home and whether he gets paid too much | Kevin De Bruyne

Confession. I’m a Manchester City fan. Another confession. Kevin De Bruyne is my favourite player. In 30 years of journalism, I’ve never interviewed a City player. Don’t meet your heroes, they say. The whole thing is discombobulating. De Bruyne – one of the world’s great players – has agreed to a rare interview. But there’s a caveat. If you talk to me, he says, you also talk to my wife, my kids, you do it at our home and you get to know us all. Usually, it’s the opposite – you don’t talk to my family, you don’t come to my home, it’s all about the work rather than the private life. Strange.

We meet a few weeks before the start of the World Cup. He’s beginning to think about it. But in typical De Bruyne fashion he dispenses with diplomacy and tells it as it is. No, he’s not happy about it being in Qatar. Yes, it is a distraction from the Premier League. No, he doesn’t think Belgium have much chance of winning.

Now he’s out there hoping to prove himself wrong.

At his best on the pitch, virtually everything is channelled through him. Often he will start a move by winning the ball and running with it in the same movement. Though he plays in the centre, he sets up goals by overlapping on the wing to put in crosses of such pace, swerve and accuracy that they are impossible to defend. And while goal-scoring isn’t his main thing (he prefers to assist), last season, when he scored four goals against Wolves, commentator Alistair Mann quivered: “Kevin, stop it! I’m running out of superlatives for you!”

In 2020, De Bruyne became the first City men’s player to win the prestigious PFA Player of the Year, and won it again the following season. In September, he was named the world’s best passer in the video game Fifa 23. Earlier this month, the game Football Manager 2023 ranked him the greatest player in the world.

De Bruyne doesn’t run with the football pack. We never see him out getting into trouble. In fact, we pretty much never see him. Which makes today even stranger. But it also makes a kind of sense. “Away from football, it’s all about family,” he says. “This is my life.”

Michèle LaCroix, AKA Mrs De Bruyne, greets me at the door. She apologises for still being in her bathrobe, shows me in and makes coffee. The house is everything you’d expect: huge driveway, extension the size of a small hotel, artworks galore, carpets like quicksand. Coco, the white-grey cat, is so perfectly coordinated, you wonder whether she came with the furnishings. Yet it’s also homely. Toys spill out of the playroom and De Bruyne’s office obviously doubled up as the home-schoolroom in the pandemic (one wall is plastered with spelling tests).

De Bruyne is nowhere to be seen, so LaCroix introduces me to Coco, the three children and her mother. We chat and drink, and it’s only after a while that I realise De Bruyne is also now in the kitchen. He is wearing a brown tracksuit, has a wispy gingerish beard and bears more than a passing resemblance to his cartoon compatriot Tintin. He glides through his house like a ghost: if he hadn’t shaken my hand and introduced himself, I probably wouldn’t have registered his presence. He floats off to the fridge, takes out slices of white Hovis, makes himself a mustard sandwich, heats up green soup and starts eating. All without a murmur. De Bruyne is a paradox. He is both famously shy and famously outspoken. A number of stories shape the mythology around him. The first is that at eight he turns to his father and says he wants to leave his club, KVV Drogen, because the training sessions at Ghent, another local club, are better. Second, now playing for Ghent, he gets so enraged when told off for not helping to clear up the pitch that he grabs one of the posts and refuses to let go. Three adults try to pull him away but fail, and his coach, Frank De Leyn, has to stay with him because De Bruyne tells him he is planning to hold on all night.

Fast forward a few years for another classic tale: De Bruyne is on the verge of the first team at rival Belgian club Genk, living there with a foster family during the week, when they decide, two years in, that they don’t want him to live with them any more because he doesn’t fit in; he’s too quiet. Finally, there is the time, aged just 20, when he gives a half-time interview ripping into his Genk teammates for shirking: “I’m ashamed of them. I suggest that those who don’t have a desire to play just leave,” he says at the time.

His management team are also here today and he’s talking to them in a quiet, flat voice. It’s so understated you almost tune out. Then you hear what he’s saying. Asked if Belgium can win the World Cup, he says, “No chance, we’re too old.” It’s only seven months ago that Belgium were ranked No 1 in the world. De Bruyne says that because the tournament is being played in Qatar in mid-season, it doesn’t feel like a real World Cup. One of his reps says it must be a dream playing with Erling Haaland, the extraordinarily prolific striker at City. “Ach, it’s like any forward.” Even he thinks his response is underwhelming. “He is so quick, though,” he adds.

He finishes his soup, cuts up some blackberries and grapes for baby Suri, who is sitting in her highchair having her hair primped for the photoshoot. He says his childhood was so different from that of his children. His father worked in a factory painting trains, his mother was a housewife, and he describes his background as “lower-middle class”. What was he like at school? “I was OK. Smart enough to know how much I needed to do and to finish it. I left at 18 with a diploma.”

I ask why so many European footballers seem better educated than their British counterparts. Perhaps the difference is languages, he says. “There are a lot of people from different countries who speak two or three languages, where English players usually only speak English. I come from a country where by 13 you are studying Dutch, French and English.” With languages, perhaps comes wisdom and humility – an ability to put yourself in the shoes of others, a knowledge that your way is not the only way. He smiles. The Belgian way was never going to be the only way, he says. “Everybody in Belgium always watches English TV anyway!”

I tell him I recently watched footage of him playing as a young boy and his style has hardly changed. Even if you blocked out his face, it could only be De Bruyne. “I know!” He takes out his phone and compares two photographs. “This is from a couple of months ago when I scored against Bournemouth. Look at the way I kick the ball. And this is a picture of me shooting when I was a kid. Identical! Same technique!”

Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne shoots at goal against Wales in a UEFA Nations League game, September 22 2022
Taking on Wales in the Uefa Nations League in September. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Are Mason, six, and Rome, almost four, promising footballers? “No,” he says. “They don’t play.” Are they not interested? “I don’t know,” he says, as if he’s never considered it. “They like to go to the football. My oldest plays piano a bit and likes to run. He’s a good runner.”

I ask about the famous stories. Did you really cling to the goalpost and refuse to budge? “I think the stories are a bit made up.” So it’s not true? “I don’t remember it. It could be true!” Does it sound like him ? He grins. “I was a little bit stubborn, yeah. I let most things go, but when I do say something I am outspoken. I know now when you speak as a teenager or a kid to an adult with an opinion, people don’t like it … even if it’s true.”

Was that the case when you suggested your Genk teammates were not trying? De Bruyne pinkens. He often flushes like this – when he’s embarrassed, when he’s upset on the pitch and when he’s made one of his superhuman runs. “Yes! The problem is the fans like that and other people like that, but the team doesn’t.”

A hairdresser is here to give everyone a trim before the photoshoot. While it’s De Bruyne’s turn, I chat to LaCroix. She’s a model, a social influencer (with more than 350,000 Instagram followers) and she recently started a Flemish podcast called Secret Society with a few Belgian girlfriends. Her parents are physiotherapists and she wanted to be a doctor when she was at school. “I never thought my life would look like this. Getting a degree was my main goal then.” When she was 17 and De Bruyne was 21, they started dating. Apart from it being her husband’s career, she has no interest in football and certainly had no ambition to be a footballer’s wife. Can she see what makes him a special player? “I don’t know a lot about football, but I think he sees things before the others maybe. He’s always one step ahead?”

She’s encouraging Suri to finish her fruit. “Everyone thinks she’s called Surrey,” she says. “‘Ello, Surrey!’” She does a good impression of a cockney. Rome is building a racetrack on his mini computer. He shows me how to do it, but I can’t keep up. Mason asks for a go of my tape recorder. “I’m going to interview you. What’s it like working for media? What’s your favourite colour?”

De Bruyne emerges from his haircut looking pleased with himself. “I’m like 24 now! I could be a model!” We head back into his office and he and LaCroix sit together on the sofa. I ask her how life has changed since they got together. For starters, she says, they weren’t living anywhere like here. Back then he was just making a name for himself and they could pretty much do what they wanted socially. “Football-wise, it’s got better and better. But then we could do more normal stuff. On a city trip, say, maybe two or three people would come up to us. Now we’re more isolated. So you do more things at home with friends. Kevin has grown more open because we’re in such an intimate circle, always with the same group. He’s more comfortable with who he is.”

“I’m more open-minded to life,” De Bruyne says. “When I was younger, it was just football. Now I have a family, life is different.” In fact, he says, it’s remarkably similar to many other working people – he drops the kids off on his way to work, trains, comes home, family meal with the kids, helps with the homework, watches telly.

He admits there is one way their life is noticeably different from the rest of ours – they spend more money on stuff. This is partly because they can and partly because they pay extra to buy their privacy. “We have to live our life in a more secluded way. Often, if we go on a tour it will be a private tour, and most of the time this stuff is more expensive and more individual.”

LaCroix says this is not a choice. When she and the kids go out without De Bruyne, they can do whatever they want. But with him it’s a different story. “Yesterday we thought we’d try going to the fair and Kevin made at least 100 pictures. Maybe 150. And the kids had to wait all the time, and it wasn’t enjoyable for them. At one point security came up and we thought they’d help, then they said, ‘Can we have a picture?’” She laughs.

She’s not asking for sympathy, she says. In so many ways it’s a wonderful, privileged life. But it isn’t without problems. “When I’ve been driving to the club lately,” De Bruyne says, “there have been people driving next to me and filming. People have followed me.”

After games, LaCroix adds, “People just jump in front of the car so you can’t drive. Then the one next to them goes for a picture so you can’t go anywhere.”

Top footballers get paid ludicrous salaries and are idolised by their supporters. De Bruyne is City’s best-paid player, earning an estimated £385,000 a week – £20m a year. In 2020, he cut ties with his long-term agent, Patrick De Koster, after he was arrested on suspicion of fraud. The investigation was reportedly triggered by complaints from De Bruyne himself. Last year, he negotiated his own contract extension using data analysts to prove his worth to the club.

All the money and worship must change you, I say. “I don’t necessarily think it’s the money, it’s the attention. If you go from no attention to wherever you go people give you attention, then that changes you. You either take everything in or block everything out. Some people like all the attention, but after a while it becomes so much you get eaten up by it. Then if you push it out you seem arrogant. It’s a thin line you have to walk.”

In terms of attention, he says, it’s harder for the top English players: “Because I’m a foreigner living here, I’m still OK. When you’re an English player, the attention flows from everywhere. It would be too much for me.”

Head shot of Manchester City footballer Kevin De Bruyne
‘Elite sport is brutal.’ Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

Does he think he gets paid too much? “No. I compare it to a singer at a concert and 60,000 people come. I look at it logically. There are millions of people watching the football on TV, there’s 60,000 watching the games, the income of a club is £500-£600m. Yeah, it’s a lot of money, but is it too much? If the club can afford it, it’s not too much. It’s not a popular answer, but that’s how I see it.”

How hard is it for them to relate to people struggling with the cost of living crisis? “We are really close to our family and friends, and most of them have normal jobs, so we know the struggles,” LaCroix says.

She looks at De Bruyne and asks him to translate an expression. “We stay with our feet on the ground,” he says. “It’s easier for us to understand, but it will be harder for the kids because they’re used to a certain lifestyle. They go to a private school and there are people from similar backgrounds. They understand when we go to see our families it’s different types of houses and another lifestyle.” It worries him: “We’ll try, but it cannot be the same as when we grew up. It’s not possible.”

When he was a child, he says, his parents didn’t have much, but it was plenty: “We had what we needed; a nice garden.” Does he have siblings? “One sister. She did trampoline and was pretty good at it. But she didn’t have the character to go on like I did.”

So many promising footballers fall by the wayside. Fewer than 0.5% of the kids in English academies at the age of nine make it as professionals at any level. So what is character? “It’s will. It’s saying no to fun stuff. At 17, 18, a new social life is beginning, people are going out, having fun with friends, and you have to say no.” That must be hard? “It is, and that’s why many people fall down at that stage. You have to become an adult quickly in football. When you start playing with the first team, you’re living with 30-, 35-year-olds; people with kids. It’s not easy and you need to learn that quickly, because if you don’t, you fall out. Elite sport is brutal.”

Did he find it tough as a teen? “Yes. I also missed part of my life because I went away from 14. We’d play on a Saturday, then I would go home to see my parents and on Sunday evening I’d travel back. So I missed the whole social part of my life.” Was he jealous of his friends? “Not at that time. Maybe afterwards. Later, when you experience things, you think perhaps it would have been fun to be doing this when everybody else was.”

It was his decision to leave home at 14: he was desperate to play football, and his parents were supportive.

I ask if the story about being dumped by his foster family is true. “Yes,” he says. “There were three of us and the other two were more sociable. At summer break I said bye to the family and went home. Then my parents told me, you’re not going back, they don’t want you any more.” He says the foster family never said anything directly, but told his parents they didn’t want him because he was too quiet, too difficult, a teenager who didn’t fit in. To add insult to injury, Genk told him he had to go to boarding school instead. In Belgium, boarding schools are more for problematic than privileged students. “I really didn’t want to do it.”

Did that rejection make him question his character? “No. I thought I’m going to push more and show them. I said to my parents, I will do good, you’ll see. I’ll be in the first team quickly, then everything will change.”

There is a YouTube film about De Bruyne that depicts his life as a triumph over tragedy. “Right from the beginning he was abandoned by his foster family,” it says. “And still life didn’t stop hitting him with tragedy after tragedy.” It goes on to document how the 20-year-old signed for Chelsea in a £7m deal and played only three Premier League games before being sold as a flop.

Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne (left) celebrates scoring a hat-trick against Wolverhampton in May 2022
Celebrating a hat-trick against Wolverhampton in May. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Has he seen the film? “No.” In the film, it mentions a match in which he came on as a half-time substitute and scored five goals. Every goal, it says, was a way of answering the foster family: “One goal, they don’t want you any more. Two goals, too quiet. Three goals, too difficult. Four goals, they don’t want you any more. Five goals, because of who you are.” When I describe this, he turns a pinker shade of pink. “That’s not true. I don’t know who said that, but it’s not true. I find that a little bit embarrassing, to be fair.” Now he’s laughing. “My life wasn’t that bad, to be honest!”

De Bruyne says too much was made of his time at Chelsea when he left, and too much was made when he returned to the Premier League a couple of years later with Manchester City. “When I came here people said, ‘Chelsea reject.’ No, I was just a young boy who didn’t play and was there for six months. I was really young.”

Leaving Chelsea was the making of him. He signed for Bundesliga club Wolfsburg in 2014 for £18m, ended the 2014-15 season with 16 goals and 27 assists in all competitions and was named Germany’s footballer of the year. In August 2015, Manchester City signed him for £55m. Those who remembered his unhappy time at Chelsea couldn’t believe how much City paid for him. Former Liverpool player Phil Thompson said: “The world is going mad. The amount of money they’re paying for this boy is just absolutely bonkers.” But it turned out to be a bargain. In four of his seven seasons, he has been voted player of the season, and City have won the Premier League four of the past five seasons. In 2017-18 they became the first (and still only) club to get 100 points in a season and the following season won an unprecedented clean sweep of domestic trophies.

Eight months after De Bruyne arrived at City, Pep Guardiola became manager. It was the catalyst for the club’s greatest run in its history. For most of my life as a City fan, I was used to nothing but failure; between 1976 and 2011 the club didn’t win a trophy. Thanks to huge investment from its UAE owners, the signing of great players and arguably the best manager in the world, City have dominated the Premier League for the past decade.

Manchester City footballer Kevin De Bruyne with his wife and three children, in matching pyjamas, against spotlight background, September 2022
‘When I was younger, it was just football. Now I have a family, life is different.’ Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian. Styling: Bemi Shaw

As supporters, I say, we love everything our owners have done for the club, but some/many of us do worry about the UAE’s human rights record. Does it bother him? “Honestly, I don’t know too much about that. All I can say is when we speak to people from the Emirates, they’re all really good and polite. I can only speak highly of them, especially Khaldoon [chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak]. You speak to him and he’s a normal person.”

I ask LaCroix if De Bruyne finds it easy to turn off from football. “Yes. He comes home and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I need a break’, so he’ll watch NBA or Formula One. If he’s injured and City plays, me and the kids just leave him alone in front of the television, because when something goes wrong he shouts. I’m like, nothing is going to change, then he shouts at us, and I’m like, OK, let him just watch the game, and after he’s like, sorry!”

De Bruyne has never been sent off for City. But there is a famous clip of him losing it with his teammates at the end of a Champions League match against Napoli in 2017 when he wants to confront the referee. De Bruyne, at his pinkest, shouts “Let me talk” five times. Every time his voice gets louder and more high-pitched. In the end, he sees sense and walks away.

I ask LaCroix to do an impression of him getting angry. “One time when he was injured he threw a bottle of water on the floor with full strength. He couldn’t walk but still managed to get up to the television to shout at it.”

“I just want my team to win,” De Bruyne says meekly.

Suddenly the door bursts open and Spider-Man flies into the room. He removes his head gear, and it’s Mason. “Are you going to answer questions?” LaCroix asks. “No,” Mason says. Is it true you’re more interested in playing piano than football, I ask. “Yes,” he says.

Despite City’s domestic success, they have yet to win the Champions League, the most prestigious club tournament in Europe. How important does De Bruyne think it is? “I don’t think it’s that important. It would be nice, but I think it’s more from the outside. It’s a stick people can beat City with. ‘Oh, you’ve done this but you haven’t done this.’ OK, but we’ve still done really good.”

Who are his best friends at City? “I would say probably Kyle Walker and Nathan Aké.” That’s surprising, I say. Walker seems quite different from you. (Walker was splashed across the front pages of the tabloids after hosting a party with sex workers during lockdown.) “Not really,” De Bruyne says. Is that the media? “I don’t know about media. Obviously there have been issues in the past for him. But from day one I have been close to Kyle and he has three kids and they play with my kids.”

Manchester City teammates Kevin De Bruyne (left) and Kyle Walker with the Premier League trophy, May 2021
With Kyle Walker and the Premier League trophy, May 2021. Photograph: Peter Powell/AFP/Getty Images

I ask about Belgium’s chances in Qatar, wondering if he’ll be more diplomatic this time. But he’s not. “I think our chance was 2018. We have a good team, but it is ageing. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018. I see us more as outsiders.”

De Bruyne, at 31, is at his peak. It’s hard to imagine him playing with such pace for much longer. Does he feel it’s getting tougher?

“I am fully able to do what I need to do, but I feel the difference compared with eight years ago. I need more treatment, more rest.”

“When he was younger, the day after a game he’d be like, ‘We can go and play tennis,’” LaCroix says. “Now the day after he’s like, ‘I need to rest. My body hurts.’”

LaCroix says football has brought her the lifestyle she dreamed of. The only difference is she had always imagined she would make her own money. What’s the worst thing about being a footballer’s wife? Often she feels like a single parent, she says. “For example, Kevin has never been to one school nativity. I’m always the parent on their own. It’s rare he can go to something for them. Two of the kids are at school, so we only have weekends to do things with them, but Kevin is playing then. It makes it harder to do stuff together as a family. Kevin always says now we need to be disciplined for football and later we can enjoy everything together.”

Does she think when he retires that will be her time to pursue her dreams? “That’s what everyone keeps saying. But I don’t think so now. I’m devoted to being with the kids, and I’ve just started the podcast.”

“She’s the glue,” he says out of nowhere. Then he looks embarrassed. “I don’t want to say that because tonight she’ll say, ‘My God, look what you’ve said.’”

LaCroix: “No, I don’t do that. I do not.”

“Yes, you would,” he says. “If I said you were the glue to the family, you’d say, ‘Remember you said that.’”

Do you mean Michèle would use it against you?

LaCroix: “Noooooooo.”

De Bruyne: “Of course!”

LaCroix: “He’s making it up!”

They seem to have a lovely relationship.

I ask if he is planning for life after playing? She looks at him, curious to hear the answer: “He gets annoyed when I ask about it. ‘I’m still playing!’”

De Bruyne: “Not really.”

LaCroix: “You do a bit.”

De Bruyne: “Well, I do things to advance the future. I’ve got my Uefa A and B coaching qualification already.”

Does he think he’ll stay in football?

De Bruyne: “Probably, yes.”

LaCroix: “100%. Kevin loves football way too much to not be in it. He should because it’s in his heart as well.”

But he could simply retire, live a life of luxury, make up for lost time on the self-indulgence and dossing front.

“It would never happen,” LaCroix says. “Give him one month, then he would be annoyed. When Covid started he was running around the sofa. I couldn’t cope with him at home.”

They go to have their photos taken. I stay in the office staring at his platoon of man of the match awards. I pop in to see how the shoot is going. De Bruyne is trying to juggle all three children in his arms and I’m worried he may get injured. I’m not sure Pep would be happy.

On the way out, I tell him that at away matches my daughter Maya and I get into the ground early when it’s almost empty and shout for waves from the players when they come out to warm up. Nearly all have given us waves, but never De Bruyne. You’re so intensely focused? “I think so, yes. I’m very different on the pitch to when I’m here. Once I’m playing football it’s a different zone. Then when I’ve finished, the game is done.”

For many years, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the undisputed two best players in the world. But things are changing. In August, De Bruyne was runner-up in the Uefa Men’s Player of the Year award, won by another oldie, Karim Benzema. How important is it to be regarded as one of the best in the world? The quiet, diffident De Bruyne looks at me with magnificent imperiousness. “It’s not important to be regarded as one of the best,” he says. “I want to be the best.”

The next few weeks with Belgium at the World Cup will provide the perfect stage for him prove that he is.

England transformed soccer in America. Now its players stand in USA’s way | USA

USA captain Tyler Adams was a 13-year-old New York Red Bulls academy prospect in 2012 when NBC became the exclusive US media rights-holder for the Premier League in a deal that has since been credited with propelling soccer to new heights of popularity in the United States.

Until then, nearly all English league matches were carried on Fox Soccer, a pay channel buried deep down the cable listings, inevitably limiting the sport’s mainstream exposure. NBC’s deal for both the English- and Spanish-language media rights to all 380 Premier League fixtures – for a then-bargain fee of $250m over three years that has since been renewed for $2.7bn over the next six – established soccer in the American sports firmament like never before by making matches available on both free-to-air television and NBC’s family of cable networks.

“Growing up, the Premier League was always the dream,” Adams said on Thursday. “I grew up a huge Thierry Henry fan, partially because he played for New York Red Bulls, but also because I watched a lot of Arsenal games as well. I admired him, how he played the game. I think in America, you see a lot of young players tuning into a lot of the Premier League games. They’re on in the mornings, they’re easy to find.”

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When the United States meet England in a blockbuster group-stage tie on Friday night at the Al Bayt Stadium, they will effectively be facing one of the reasons for the sport’s rising profile back home. For the 23-year-old Adams, the wider exposure and accessibility of the Premier League only further cultivated a dream that was planted when he joined New York Red Bulls during Henry’s four-year stint in Major League Soccer.

Having forged a reputation as an industrious ball-winning defensive midfielder, Adams moved to NYRB’s sister club RB Leipzig in 2019, making his biggest splash when he fired in the goal that lifted the Bundesliga club into the Champions League semi-finals. When he landed at Leeds United in a $24.2m (£20m) transfer this summer, it fulfilled a lifelong dream that not even his success in Germany could match.

“The Bundesliga wasn’t the biggest thing for me when I was growing up,” he said. “You saw a lot of quality players on the pitch at the same time [in the Premier League], no matter which teams were playing.

“I remember telling my mom at a young age that I wanted to play in England. The culture is not too far off of what America has to offer, so definitely that transition has been a lot easier than playing in Germany. But there’s something special about the Premier League. There always has been and I think there always will be.”

USA coach Gregg Berhalter, who on Monday became the first person to play for and manage an American side at a World Cup, came of age at a time when finding Premier League matches on American television was all but impossible. Only when he was in the Netherlands during the 1990s at the outset of a 15-year playing career in Europe was he exposed to the Premier League on a regular basis.

“I remember when I was in Holland getting home from my games on Saturday watching Match of the Day on BBC, and that was the only real highlights you got,” Berhalter said. “And now, every Saturday morning in America, waking up to watching the Premier League and seeing all the fan festivals they’re having. Everyone now in America seems to have a team that they support.

“It’s an incredible league. We’re really proud to have our players playing in that league. And to me, it’s similar to the NFL and in terms of how dominant it is and how commercial-orientated it is.”

Adams, who is the youngest captain of the 32 squads in Qatar by some distance, is also the youngest player to wear the skipper’s armband for a US team at the World Cup since Walter Bahr in 1950 – a tournament where the Americans famously bucked the odds with a 1-0 upset of England in Belo Horizonte.

As the United States have rebuilt from the wreckage of their catastrophic failure to qualify for the World Cup four years ago, Adams has made no secret of this group’s goal of changing the way the world perceives American soccer. An inspired performance in Friday’s match on the northeast coast of Qatar could go a long way to making it happen.

“It’s a obviously a huge opportunity to fast-track the impact that we can have,” Adams said. “These are the games where the pressure is a privilege to step on the field against some of these guys. We respect them. There’s probably a mutual respect between both teams. And when you get a result in a game like this, people start to respect Americans a little bit more.”

Saudi government would back private bids for Manchester United or Liverpool | Premier League

Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s sports minister, has said his government would definitely support any private sector bids from the country for Manchester United or Liverpool.

While the Saudi Public Investment Fund backed the purchase of Newcastle United last winter, Prince Abdulaziz said private businesses in his country have a strong interest in English football’s most successful clubs, with both instructing banks regarding potential investment or sale.

“From the private sector, I can’t speak on their behalf, but there is a lot of interest and appetite and passion about football,” he told BBC Sport. “It’s the most-watched league in Saudi and the region and you have a lot of fans of the Premier League. We will definitely support it if any [Saudi] private sector comes in, because we know that’s going to reflect positively on sports within the kingdom. If there’s an investor willing to do so and the numbers add up, why not?”

The prince also stated a wish to see Cristiano Ronaldo play in Saudi. The 37-year-old is a free agent after leaving United by mutual agreement this week and he recently stated that he turned down a two-year deal in the summer worth more than £300m a year from a Saudi club.

“I would love to see Ronaldo play in the Saudi league,” said Prince Abdulaziz. “It would benefit the league, the sports eco-system in Saudi and will inspire the youth for the future. He’s a role model to a lot of kids and has a big fanbase in Saudi.”

Ronaldo scored in Portugal’s 3-2 win over Ghana at the Qatar World Cup on Thursday and Saudi may make its own bid to host the tournament. “Who wouldn’t want to host the World Cup?” the prince said. “Any country in the world would love to host the World Cup.”

In hosting major sporting events including boxing world title fights Saudi has been accused of sportwashing to deflect criticism of its record on human rights. But Prince Abdulaziz claimed doing so has been positive for his nation’s people.

“The numbers don’t lie – when you look at participation in boxing, from six gyms in 2018 to 57 gyms today. A 300% participation increase, 60% are women, which was a shock for us. When you see appetite from the youth, men and women, they learned from it. If it’s making the country better and fixing a lot of the social issues we have in terms of participation then that’s a benefit for us,” he said.

We love Brazilian skill, so why do we criticise their flair players so much? | World Cup 2022

The World Cup has finally started and, for some Brazil players, representing their national team may prove a welcome break from the day job. Manager Tite included 12 players from the Premier League in his 26-man squad – second only to England – and 22 in total from European clubs. Brazilian players have increasingly made home in Europe but their style is not always feted. At least once a month this season a young, skilful Brazilian has been criticised for doing what they do best: entertaining fans, expressing themselves and exhibiting their art.

Most recently, it was Antony’s turn to suffer a media pile-on in his adopted home. The São Paulo product was one of new Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag’s marquee signings in the summer. The Dutchman convinced the club to pay Ajax £82m – an Eredivisie record – for the 22-year-old. The forward has enjoyed a strong start in England, setting a record as the first United player to score in his first three Premier League games. He was generally well received by fans and the media. Until he did the unthinkable and tried to pull off a trick during a 3-0 win over Sheriff in the Europa League.

Former United player Paul Scholes called the youngster a “clown” after he span 720 degrees with the ball glued to his feet and then misplaced a forward pass. “That’s the way he plays,” said Scholes. “I’ve seen him do it many a time at Ajax as well and that’s just the way he is, but I think he needs that knocking out of him.” Robbie Savage called Antony “embarrassing”, adding: “If I was the manager and he did that again, I would drag him off.”

Savage’s wish was granted when Ten Hag replaced Antony with Marcus Rashford at half-time. The manager said after the match that he would “correct” his player, explaining: “When there is a trick like that, it’s nice as long as it’s functional. If you’re not losing the ball, then it’s OK – but if it’s a trick because of a trick, then I will correct him.”

Antony, meanwhile, was defiant. “We’re known for our art and I’m not going to stop doing what got me where I am,” he said on Instagram.

Antony in action for Manchester United against Sheriff in the Europa League.
Antony in action for Manchester United against Sheriff in the Europa League. Photograph: Jon Super/AP

The hugely popular Brazilian football pundit Paulo Vinicius Coelho sees both sides of the argument. “Like everything in the world, there’s reason in the middle of it,” says Coelho. “Brazil still sees football as if it were a team sport won by individuals when it is increasingly a collective game that is resolved by collective aspects. From this point of view, the English are correct and Paul Scholes was right to criticise him. Dribbling and tricks need to have an objective.

“There is also a certain contempt in Europe for the dribble, as if it wasn’t a beautiful thing. I think there’s an exaggeration in Brazil about the aesthetics of the dribble and an exaggeration in some parts of Europe in the contempt there is for these aesthetics. But there’s a place in the middle of this. Dribbling and tricks are some of the beauties of football, but they need to lead to a chance or a goal. From this last point of view, Antony can improve how he uses tricks – tricks that aren’t to promote himself but to advance his own team.”

If footballers face a battle between aesthetics and results, Brazilians have always tended to be more artful than pragmatic. But their choices have not always been appreciated in Europe. When Tottenham Hotspur forward Richarlison indulged in a few keepy-ups against Nottingham Forest earlier this season, Forest manager Steve Cooper was appalled, saying: “I wouldn’t want my players to do what Richarlison did. It wouldn’t be accepted here.”

Vinicius Jr has also been criticised for doing the samba after he scores for Real Madrid, which leads to the question of just how much these Brazilian players are appreciated in Europe. Why buy skilful Brazilian wingers for their craft and then chide them for doing skilful Brazilian winger things? Would they even bother leaving home if – and this is a big if – they weren’t guaranteed higher wages and the chance to play in the Champions League? Would staying in Brazil be more fulfilling than moving to Europe, being chastised for entertaining and made to play in rigid, mechanical systems that offer little room for creativity.

Moments like Antony’s are no longer allowed to pass by fleetingly, raising a smile from supporters. They are scrutinised to their limit by commentators and pundits, and used by rival fans to attack players. This feels like something new. Players such as Ronaldinho and Garrincha, artists with the ball, were lauded for their skills. Not everything they tried came off. Zico and Sócrates wowed the planet at the 1982 World Cup, but would they be branded show ponies today for crashing out of the tournament before the semi-finals?

As Neymar said last year when his Brazil teammate Lucas Paquetá was booked for attempting a rainbow flick while playing for Lyon against Troyes – something that Neymar himself has been cautioned for in Ligue 1 – “joga bonito is over”.

Perhaps the World Cup will give Brazilians a chance to be themselves and charm a generation of fans who have become obsessed with results over aesthetics. Maybe the current crop of players, who refined their art on muddy pitches and concrete favela courts, can win over hearts and minds by winning a sixth World Cup – and doing it in style.

Manchester United fans, how do you feel about the club being put up for sale? | Manchester United

Manchester United has been put up for sale by the club’s owners, the Glazer family, who have announced that they are “commencing a process to explore strategic alternatives”. The news that the family’s controversial 17-year ownership could be ending came on the day Cristiano Ronaldo left the club.

We would like to speak to Manchester United fans around the world about their views on the developments at the club. How do you feel about the team’s future? Would you welcome new ownership of the club?

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Premier League clubs face mixed risks of sending players to the World Cup | Premier League

Pep Guardiola was notably accepting of Manchester City’s defeat by Brentford in their last match before the World Cup. “My staff and I will have time to reflect on what we did well and what to do better,” he shrugged. Guardiola and his staff may also have to watch events in Qatar through their hands, clenching as heavy tackles fly in and muscle injuries stack up given City – with 16 players – are the Premier League club sending the most players to the finals.

Even if Erling Haaland will be spending much of the next six weeks on the Etihad Campus, key players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Rodri will return bearing the physical and mental scars of the tournament. And individual success in Qatar may not necessarily be good news for a player’s club. To take the example of England’s Euro 2020 finalists, a number of Gareth Southgate’s players made indifferent starts to their 2021-22 club campaigns.

Such are the intangibles for clubs of this World Cup. Jürgen Klopp is a vocal critic of the tournament being staged in Qatar, particularly in mid‑season, but he will see only seven players jet out to pre-tournament training camps. Like Guardiola, Klopp has a star forward getting a needed rest, in Mohamed Salah, but it is Uruguay rather than Liverpool who will be the immediate beneficiaries of Darwin Núñez’s recent flowering.

Overall the Premier League is providing more World Cup players than any other division, with 134 players at the tournament – 16% – plying their trade in the English top flight. The league leaders, Arsenal, have 10 players in World Cup squads but their England contingent of three contains two players, Aaron Ramsdale and Ben White, expected to be reserves in Southgate’s squad. The same may go for Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli among a Brazil squad featuring heavy competition for forward places. Mikel Arteta appears to be getting off rather lightly, though how to motivate players disappointed at being underused is yet another consideration to add to the pile.

The response of players to disappointing tournaments is also important. How, for example, might Antonio Conte coax the best from Harry Kane at Tottenham should England’s captain flop in Qatar? Or, to name another player among Spurs’ 11 call-ups, someone carrying a yet heavier burden for his national team, Son Heung‑min? Will his disappointing season so far – and the facial injury he is nursing – cast a shadow over his World Cup and consequently his return to Tottenham? Every player is on a sliding scale. How might they react to playing in a mid‑season tournament in which their country’s expectations are sky‑high while playing for a different coach using probably very different tactics?

Player stats

For managers such as Graham Potter and Erik ten Hag, relative newcomers to their clubs trying to install a fresh playing doctrine, losing players in mid‑season is unhelpful. Manchester United, sending 14, have made significant improvements under Ten Hag, and though Cristiano Ronaldo can be discounted from the list of players whose fitness he will care about, Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martínez have all been crucial to United’s revival. Each is playing for a nation expected to go deep in the tournament.

Potter’s Chelsea have stalled of late. His players have appeared unresponsive to his tactics. Chelsea will have 12 players in Qatar but a mid‑season training camp planned for Abu Dhabi also gives Potter a decent core with which to work. Reece James, Wesley Fofana, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Marc Cucurella, Trevoh Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jorginho and Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang are among those players not travelling.

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Manchester United and Chelsea will return to action at Christmas looking at Newcastle in third place, and while Eddie Howe will not welcome a loss of momentum only five players are being lost from his squad to the World Cup, two of them – Callum Wilson and Nick Pope – likely to be on the England bench. And while Bruno Guimarães is a player Newcastle cannot afford to lose, other leading players from this season in Sven Botman, not picked for Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands team, and Miguel Almíron, whose Paraguay did not qualify, will return to Tyneside after taking short rests.

Further down the table, the World Cup break throws up an opportunity for Nathan Jones, freshly arrived at Southampton, who are sending only two players. Should Bournemouth appoint a new manager – or Gary O’Neil stay on – only the Wales pair of Kieffer Moore and Chris Mepham will not be around.

Three managers ended the season’s first tranche of fixtures under pressure. At West Ham David Moyes will have mixed feelings if England progress deep in the tournament, with Declan Rice a key midfielder. Lucas Paquetá, the summer’s big signing, is yet to shine in east London but is favoured by the Brazil coach, Tite. Perhaps a good showing in Qatar can energise Paquetá’s club season. Jesse Marsch will be roaring on Team USA, though in Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams he will fear fatigue in two players who have become important to Leeds.

Which leaves Frank Lampard, with Everton losing four players to the tournament. Until his mistakes at Bournemouth at the weekend, Jordan Pickford had been exemplary in goal. An injury or the loss of form that can follow for players scapegoated for English failure could mortally wound Everton. Such are the myriad equations the World Cup must turn over in the minds of Premier League managers.

Manchester United await ‘full facts’ of explosive Cristiano Ronaldo interview | Premier League

Manchester United have responded to Cristiano Ronaldo’s accusation that he is being forced out of the club by highlighting the “togetherness” being built under Erik ten Hag, their manager.

In a Talk TV interview to be broadcast later this week, previewed by a newspaper article by his interviewer, Piers Morgan, and among a litany of complaints about the club he returned to in the summer of 2021, Ronaldo critcised Ten Hag, saying of the current Manchester United manager: “I don’t have respect for him because he doesn’t show respect for me.”

United’s response on Monday to Ronaldo’s Sunday night revelations was to release a three-sentence statement. “Manchester United notes the media coverage regarding an interview by Cristiano Ronaldo,” it read. “The club will consider its response after the full facts have been established.

“Our focus remains on preparing for the second half of the season and continuing the momentum, belief and togetherness being built among the players, manager, staff, and fans.”

United signed off for their World Cup break by beating Fulham 2-1 via a last-minute goal from Alejandro Garnacho, a match Ronaldo missed, as he had the midweek Carabao Cup victory over Aston Villa, his absence due to “sickness”. He is set to lead Portugal in Qatar in what is likely to be his final World Cup.

Having failed to get a move away in the summer, finding no takers in the Champions League echelon he still considers his natural habitat, Ronaldo stayed on but has been unable to prove his worth. Ten Hag favours a high-pressing style that does not favour the 37-year-old. Ronaldo made a belated arrival to United’s pre-season. He told Morgan stayed in Portugal to attend to his three-month-old daughter, who was hospitalised in July. He accused the club’s hierarchy of a lack of empathy, having lost his daughter’s twin brother, who died in childbirth.

Ten Hag’s team are in fifth place, having recovered from their poor start while Ronaldo has contributed just one Premier League goal. He top-scored last season with 24 goals, but his interview with Morgan included criticism of Ralf Rangnick, interim manager last season after the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjær. “If you’re not even a coach, how are you going to be the boss of Manchester United?” he said of the German. “I’d never even heard of him.”

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Ronaldo suggested that certain, unnamed senior figures at the club wanted him out last season. He also highlighted a lack of development since he first departed United in 2009 and Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013: “He knows better than anybody that the club is not on the path they deserve to be,” he said of Ferguson.

The two-part interview sees Ronaldo hitting back at former teammate Wayne Rooney for perceived criticism, including the club’s record goalscorer among his betrayers. “Probably because he finished his career and I’m still playing at high level,” said Ronaldo, whose last game for United now seems likely to be 6 November’s 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa.

Premier League season so far: best signing to biggest disappointment | Premier League

Best signing

We can sit here and overanalyse these matters to find a clever answer but sometimes the simplest is the best. Step forward Erling Haaland. Since arriving in the Premier League the Norwegian striker-bot’s record of 18 goals in 13 appearances – that’s one every 58 minutes he’s on the pitch – is frankly absurd. His movement and finishing are like nothing football has seen, leaving defenders rightly confused regarding how to stop him. Those at the World Cup will be pleased they will not have to face him because Norway did not qualify. On the other hand, it will mean he is rested for the second half of the season.

Forgotten signing

Wolves have struggled to score, which is unsurprising considering the number of strikers they have on the sidelines. Raúl Jiménez has not played since August and Pedro Neto was injured at the start of October. The summer signing Sasa Kalajdzic arrived for £15m from Stuttgart, making his debut in a 1-0 win over Southampton, but had to be withdrawn at half-time with cruciate ligament damage that required surgery and it is not clear when he will return. Bruno Lage was forced into the free agent market to find some goals. Diego Costa was brought in, making his debut on 2 October against West Ham; Lage was sacked the next day. Costa is yet to score but he has been sent off.

Least surprising sacking

At time of writing, six Premier League clubs have changed manager but Scott Parker scoops this award. After battling to get Bournemouth into the Premier League, he lasted four games. Things started brightly thanks to a 2-0 win over Aston Villa, who have since sacked Steve Gerrard. Then reality hit and 16 goals were conceded in three games, culminating in a 9-0 loss at Anfield and a P45 in the post. He had spent his time between defeats bemoaning that Bournemouth were “way short of where we need to be” and “barely had any defenders”, two thinly veiled criticisms of the club’s transfer business. Gary O’Neil took over and went six games unbeaten to prove that Bournemouth were not too far short after all.

Most demoralising defeat

Wolves 0-4 Leicester. Wolves had 21 shots and failed to score. They did not even test Danny Ward. On the other hand, Leicester scored with their first four efforts. Home fans sang about how bad the team were and turned their ire on members of the hierarchy. It was a reminder of their distinct lack of attacking threat and how they will spend the season battling relegation. Few stayed for the end and those who did were intent only on pointing out their disgust.

Most excited by World Cup break

Liverpool have underwhelmed in league proceedings. There have been far too many draws, and losses to struggling Nottingham Forest and Leeds. Jürgen Klopp has spoken of his optimism that a better Liverpool will come out of the other side of the World Cup. From back to front there have been issues with form and fitness, causing many a head-scratching moment for the manager. After defeat at the City Ground, Klopp said he was “as low as possible” but things got worse when Crysencio Summerville popped up with a late winner at Anfield the following week. Klopp is not particularly excited by the World Cup, allowing him time to focus on how he can move Liverpool up the league.

Jürgen Klopp after Liverpool’s defeat at Arsenal last month.
Jürgen Klopp after Liverpool’s defeat at Arsenal last month. Photograph: Robin Jones/Getty Images

Best team

Arsenal are top, which seems the easiest way to judge these things. Few would have predicted such an outcome but clever transfer business that brought Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko to the club has been the catalyst for success after careful building in recent years by Mikel Arteta. A loss at Manchester United and draw against Southampton are the only blemishes on their Premier League record in 14 matches. They look more resilient than the Gunners of previous seasons and are genuine title contenders for the first time in more than a decade. Now they need to show they can last the pace with Manchester City snapping at their heels.

Biggest disappointment

From relative ineptitude on the pitch to refusing to even go on, Cristiano Ronaldo’s efforts for Manchester United have been pretty pathetic. But do not worry CR7 fans, it’s not his fault because the club have “betrayed” him, he has no respect for Erik ten Hag and nothing has changed at Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013. That is why he has scored only once in the league. He returned to Manchester as a legend but he will almost certainly depart in January having tainted his legacy for the sake of very little, except a fragile ego and ludicrous sense of self-importance.

Best XI so far

4-3-1-2: Kepa Arrizabalaga (Chelsea); Ben White (Arsenal), William Saliba (Arsenal), Lisandro Martínez (Manchester United), Pervis Estupiñán (Brighton); Bruno Guimarães (Newcastle), Martin Ødegaard (Arsenal), Miguel Almirón (Newcastle); Leandro Trossard (Brighton); Erling Haaland (Manchester City), Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham)

Spurs seal another dramatic comeback as late Bentancur double sinks Leeds | Premier League

Six weeks’ pause for breath never looked so tempting. This match had a seesaw feel about it at the outset and went on to surpass itself; Tottenham and Leeds were exhilarating and exasperating in turn, often during the same sequence of play, but when the music stopped it was Antonio Conte who could savour the moment with his inimitable brand of arm-whirling euphoria. He had enjoyed watching Harry Kane and Ben Davies adorn their World Cup preparations with goals but nobody in the ground could have predicted the identity of the player who turned things on their head.

Rodrigo Bentancur had been helpless to prevent his opponent and namesake, the forward Rodrigo, from scoring his second outstanding goal of the game but need not have been concerned. Spurs were losing again with 14 minutes left but, by the time seven more had passed, the Uruguayan had converted two chances of his own. The first was a 15-yard drive deflected in via Luke Ayling, Leeds’s unfortunate substitute; next up was a close-range finish after stellar work from Dejan Kulusevski, whose return to the starting lineup after injury made all the difference for Tottenham. Now Conte can avoid too many awkward questions given Spurs will spend Christmas in the top four.

“It was really strange; tough,” Conte said. “Every coach doesn’t want to have this type of game, it shows a lot of instability in one side and the other side.” Tottenham were first to display it, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg allowing Brenden Aaronson to get the wrong side of him and slide through Crysencio Summerville, the diminutive young winger, who scored a well-taken fourth goal in four games.

Summerville could have scored again before Kane’s equaliser but Spurs had already been full of threat, the hapless Emerson Royal skying a sitter and Kulusevski irresistible on the right. Leeds and Jesse Marsch were left to fume when Illan Meslier, boxed in by Clément Lenglet and Richarlison, could not make clean contact with a corner. Kane took advantage emphatically via some nifty footwork.

“It’s a foul,” Marsch said, while Conte preferred to wax lyrical about the England captain’s preparedness for Qatar. “He’s in really good physical condition and in my opinion he’s also mentally stronger than before,” he said. “I see a player that is ready, I see in his eyes a desire to be a protagonist in the best competition in the world.”

The injured Son Heung-min marvels at Rodrigo Bentancur’s match-winning double before the pair head off to the World Cup.
The injured Son Heung-min marvels at Rodrigo Bentancur’s match-winning double before the pair head off to the World Cup. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Getty Images

Rodrigo will not be there with Spain but his volley just before half-time, meeting Rasmus Kristensen’s header adroitly, would have been worthy of the stage. Spurs needed to do it all again and Davies, whose 20-yarder squirmed through a combination of Meslier and Kristensen after the former had blocked from Kane, restored morale with the second period six minutes old.

Leeds dictated possession in the subsequent spell, with Spurs oddly flat, and appeared primed to win when Marc Roca played Rodrigo through for an immaculate finish into the only far-post spot Hugo Lloris could not cover. Tottenham claimed Bentancur had been fouled by Tyler Adams in the buildup; they may have had a point but, in seizing on a weak clearance to equalise again via that small stroke of fortune, he set up a hefty dose of revenge.

Kulusevski’s contribution to the clincher, reaching the byline for the umpteenth time before nudging the ball back cleverly, was outstanding; how Spurs have missed the sometimes understated but unfailingly effective Swede since September. There was still time for Adams, who Kane had deceived in the act of scoring, to be dismissed for a second yellow card and ensure his manager departed feeling desolate.

“I’m gutted,” Marsch said. “I feel like someone has ripped my heart out. I thought we had control of the match but then we let it slip.” His angst was understandable.

A relieved Conte reflected on the impact of a taxing spell, which included the death of his popular fitness coach Gian Piero Ventrone, on his squad. He pointed out that the fixture schedule, and subsequent lack of time to fine-tune on the training pitch, may have laid part of the ground for the chaos that unfolded here.

“When you don’t work on tactical aspects you are going to lose something; we lost a lot I think,” he said. The neutral gained the wildest of mid-season rides.

Alejandro Garnacho sinks Fulham with last-gasp Manchester United winner | Premier League

Paul Tierney blew his whistle, the ball dropped out of the sky and was grabbed by Tim Ream, and history was made as the Premier League, for the first time ever, broke for the World Cup. The final game before the six-week shutdown was an enjoyable romp that culminated with that most familiar of tropes, a last-minute Manchester United winner, slid in by the 18-year-old substitute Alejandro Garnacho.

A crisp evening by the Thames. The bells of All Saints welcoming the throng through Bishops Park. Smoke rising from the fast-food vans into the chill clear air. The trees an autumnal gold. In the morning, a gentle mist had hung over the river, perfect for the old maids to cycle through on their way to holy communion. It was the sort of November day that has made trips to Craven Cottage so evocative since it first became the home of Fulham in 1896. It certainly was not the sort of day to make you feel as though, a week less half an hour after kick-off, the World Cup would be getting under way.

Of all the issues raised by this World Cup, perhaps the least important is the way it has disrupted the rhythm of European seasons. There have even been suggestions that some teams this season may not be taking the Carabao Cup entirely seriously. And yet it has had an impact, as the number of players already ruled out of or in danger of missing out on the World Cup makes clear.

There has never before been a gap of fewer than 16 days between the Champions League/European Cup final and the start of the World Cup; for there to be less than seven days between the end of domestic seasons and the start of the tournament inevitably augments the sense of football as a remorseless treadmill, fixture after fixture following in endless, accelerating succession, and can only increase the issue of fatigue.

The result was a distinct last day of term feel about Fulham, of this somehow lacking the dread earnestness of most match days. Uniform guidelines were perhaps relaxed, some of the younger classes brought in games, there were squabbles in the staff-room over the one working video-recorder and the tape of the Tom Hanks film Big and nobody really bothered too much with the boring stuff, like defensive structure or playing the safe pass. The result was a very open and thoroughly engaging game that swept from end to end with exhausting intensity.

There was certainly no obvious sign of players holding back. Nor was there any suggestion that the absences of five players who could have major roles to play at the World Cup – Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphaël Varane, Antony and the suspended Diogo Dalot for United and Aleksandar Mitrovic for Fulham – were down to anything other than bona fide issues, but the shadows they left contributed to the air of vague abandon. Harry Maguire, lionheart of the England back three, at least should be fully rested, having spent the evening on the bench; he has played just 90 minutes of Premier League football in the past two months.

Yet this was a game of consequence. The win took United to within three points of fourth-placed Tottenham with a game in hand; the gulf to Champions League qualification looks manageable.

The absence of Ronaldo is of increasingly little concern to United. United have lost half the Premier League games he’s started this season, averaging just a point a game, as opposed to 2.2 per game without him. United’s opener was finely constructed, evidence of the sort of football Erik ten Hag is looking to instil – and the reason why he eschews Brazil’s first-choice holding midfield pair to deploy Christian Eriksen alongside Casemiro. The Brazilian dispossessed Tom Cairney after 14 minutes, Eriksen then setting Anthony Martial running before advancing to slide in Bruno Fernandes’s cross at the back post.

The player who was missed was Dalot, the combination of Willian and Antonee Robinson repeatedly troubling his stand-in Tyrell Malacia down the Fulham left. Sure enough, that was where the Fulham equaliser originated, the duo combining to lay in Cairney to cross for the United old boy Dan James, who had been on the pitch just three minutes, to turn in.

There was still almost half an hour plus injury time to play at that point and, for a time, until the introduction of Garnacho restored some thrust to the United attack, Fulham looked the likelier to score. But it was United who, in the third minute of three minutes added time, grabbed the winner, the Argentinian drifting in from the left, exchanging passes with Eriksen and nudging his finish past Bernd Leno.

And then, poof, it was gone, the excitement doused, the stands emptied, the floodlights turned off to make way for Fifa’s shameful folly in Qatar, not to be reignited until Boxing Day.