As a nation shivers amid the December gloom and a mounting cost of living crisis, Gareth Southgate believes that his England team can lift the mood in their World Cup last 16 match against Senegal on Sunday night.
So far England have seesawed between the sublime and the stodgy in Qatar, but they have avoided defeat – something that the other big favourites, including Brazil, France, Spain and Argentina, have all failed to do.
And Southgate is quietly optimistic that his side can spread more feelgood vibes across the country, just as they did when England reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 and Euro 2020 final.
England (4-3-3) Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Rice, Henderson, Bellingham; Rashford, Kane, Sterling
Senegal (4-3-3) Mendy; Sabaly, Koulibaly, Diallo, Jakobs; Ciss, Gueye, P Sarr; Ndiaye, Dia, I Sarr
Sunday 7pm, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor
“Part of the reason for doing the job is to bring happiness to others, frankly,” he said after England’s training session on Saturday. “Of course, we’ve got our own pride and we want to achieve professionally. But we have taken the country on two incredible journeys and you can feel that there’s the potential for another one and we want that to happen.
“We recognise the situation at home for everybody,” he added. “And we want to bring smiles to people’s faces as they get towards the end of this weekend.”
The tone was confident, but not complacent. There have been suggestions from the Senegal camp that England are arrogant, but Southgate insisted that his side have “huge respect” for the champions of Africa.
There was a similar restrained attitude among the few England fans in the Souq Waqif, one of the places where supporters have congregated over the past fortnight. No one was predicting that a World Cup victory was imminent. No one was singing about it coming home. At least not yet.
“I think it’s going to be close against Senegal,” said Steve Melay, a businessman from Northampton who had flown out for three nights to watch the game. “It could go to extra time and penalties, but I think we will win it.”
His friend Dean Moore from Wallington was more confident that England would win – as long as Southgate took the same positive approach as in the 6-2 win over Iran in their opening game. “He’s got to be bold,” he said. “Our best players are our forwards so let’s use them. Let’s not be scared of losing. Let’s go for it. And I think we should win comfortably. But if we are hesitant or not confident Senegal will put it on us and it could end up a messy game.”
There is not yet any evidence of a surge of England fans coming to Doha, with plenty of tickets still available on flights from London and Manchester, but some supporters may be waiting to see if the team makes it through to a potential quarter-final against France next Saturday.
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However, Martin and Ros Savage from Harrow said one factor for many England fans was the high cost of travel. They had paid nearly £1,000 for flights to Doha as well as 14,000 Qatari rials (£3,100) for a nine-night stay. “We’re in the England travel club so we have conditional tickets for the last 16 and quarter-finals,” explained Ros. “We were always going to come out, even if England got knocked out in the group stages.”
“It’s an expensive holiday,” agreed Martin. “The younger generation can’t afford it. A lot of them have gone to Spain or Portugal instead for a World Cup holiday.”
In fact many of the England fans in Qatar appear to be expats based in the Gulf region enjoying a rare chance to see the national team. Among them was Sarah Bradell, who had travelled from Bahrain. “The atmosphere has been great and as a woman I feel incredibly safe here,” she said. “We could go to the bathroom and leave our wallets on the table and locals wouldn’t steal them.”
Fifa and the Qatari organisers have claimed 2.45 million spectators watched the 48 group games, with an average of 96% of seats filled. That will raise some eyebrows, given how some matches appeared to have plenty of empty seats.
“It’s been a fantastic World Cup,” said Colin Smith, Fifa’s chief operating officer. “Teams, media and spectators are enjoying more matches, more festivals, more football and more fun.”
Some of that is up for debate. But, on the pitch at least, it has been a blast. And England hope to linger in the furnace for at least another week.