England manager Gareth Southgate is hoping his side can create lasting memories for people back home during a “difficult spell”.
Having reached the semi-finals in Russia four years ago and finished as Euro 2020 runners-up, the Three Lions are among the favourites to triumph this winter in Qatar.
But the heat is on Southgate after England were relegated from the Nations League top tier during a six-match winless run they will hope to end in Monday’s Group B opener against Iran.
Clashes against the United States and Wales quickly follow as his players look to join Sir Alf Ramsey’s 1966 heroes as the only Englishmen to have ever won a major international trophy.
“Look, our challenge is to give our supporters a tournament that’s memorable,” Southgate said on the eve of the Iran game at the Khalifa International Stadium.
“We’ve taken them on fantastic journeys in our last two tournaments, and we want to bring (them on another).
“Our country is going also through a difficult spell – not the same as some of the other countries around the world at the moment but we’re in the middle of an economic recession and life has been difficult for a lot of our people.
“So, we want them to enjoy their football and have a journey with the team that brings some real happiness.”
There has been precious little time to prepare for the tournament given the unprecedented scheduling of the tournament, which is wedged in the middle of the Premier League season.
England met up on Monday and jetted out to Qatar the following day, with James Maddison the only player ruled out against Iran as he recovers from a knee issue.
“Everybody is available bar James Maddison for tomorrow,” Southgate said.
“It’s a little bit early for Kyle Walker but he is training with the team, so that’s ahead of where we thought he might be at this stage. Very positive.
“We’re looking forward to this challenge and I’ve really liked the way the players have approached training this week.
“It’s been a good transition for us because training a couple of days earlier (in the day) with the heat, which we wanted to adapt to.
“Now we’ve had a couple of lighter sessions later at night. It’s quite cool now, so we feel that that’s been good physical tapering for the game.”
England have been training at Al Wakrah Sports Complex, where players have been peppered with questions during media access over Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people.
Iran’s players and staff have also faced questions about politics given the deaths and arrests in the struggle for gender equality in their homeland.
A reporter, seemingly irked by such questions, responded by mentioning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a lengthy question to Southgate that led the moderator to request journalists are more succinct.
“I understand the frustration from your team regarding the questions,” Southgate said. “It’s a very difficult situation.
“And, believe me, I’ve been asked lots and lots of political questions by our media about lots of subjects for six years, so we’re both in the same situation on that.
“I understand in the position I’m in that there is a responsibility for me to answer some of those questions.
“We’re very respectful of our opponents tomorrow. We know the quality of the players – several of them playing at big European clubs, obviously a couple have been playing in England.
“And we know Carlos (Queiroz), in the last World Cup they were a very well-organised team, very difficult to play against, against big opponents.
“We’re ready for the game, we’re ready for strong challenge, a difficult game.
“We have to be the very best version of ourselves to win the game.”
Southgate highlighted Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi as particular threats for Queiroz’s well-drilled side, who will look to counter from a solid base.
“In terms of the teams with a low block, I mean, I think our team have been pretty creative in and successful in breaking those sorts of challenges,” Southgate added.
“You always have to be patient. We know that we mustn’t be frustrated if it takes us time to score because that’s been consistent – teams that have played against Iran it’s been difficult to score goals.
“We had a similar challenge in our first game in Russia, where we played Tunisia. We were playing well, we scored, looked as if the game was going in a good direction. We conceded a penalty.
“We had to react to that in the right way and we ended up scoring in the last minute of the game, so this team had been through lots of different challenges, had to come back in games where they’ve been behind.
“They’ve always responded in the right way and that’s what we’ve got to do during this tournament as well.”
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