England boss Southgate still a man who will speak his mind

My players will take their chance to make a difference… we will be judged as human as well as footballers – too political for some, not political enough for others, England boss Southgate still a man who will speak his mind

  • Gareth Southgate has regularly addressed political issues as England manager
  • He has been deemed too political by some and not political enough by others
  • Southgate also said anything less than a semi-final in Qatar will be a failure
  • England will begin their World Cup campaign against Iran on November 21 

Gareth Southgate clearly didn’t get the memo from FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Now is the time for us all to focus on football and forget about politics, was the gist of Gianni’s letter to federations on the eve of a World Cup built on the deaths of bonded labourers.

The England manager sat down with European newspaper journalists recently and, in an interview published on Saturday, managed to touch on Brexit, human rights, gay footballers, his players’ political engagement and — Gianni will be pleased with this bit — a little bit of football as well.

Southgate will always walk a line whereby he’s far too political for some when taking the knee, an action which then Prime Minister Boris Johnson seemed to want to be booed, and not nearly political enough when suggesting that workers in Qatar want the World Cup, a comment for which he was criticised by Amnesty last week.

England manager Gareth Southgate has never been one to shy away from difficult questions

The 52-year-old has been banded too political by some and not political enough by others

Clearly, he’s there to be shot at by a huge range of commentators, be they liberal human rights organisation or right-wingers stoking culture wars for political gain.

But surveying the words he spoke in the comparatively more-relaxed presence of correspondents from L’Equipe, La Repubblica and Die Welt, there was some fresh insight into the mind of the manager in the week in which he names his Qatar World Cup squad.

Asked if it wasn’t risky to encourage players to speak out about social issues when, should they fail, that distraction will be used as a reason for their under performance, Southgate suggested that he doesn’t feel judged on football results alone.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has asked World Cup nations to concentrate on the football

‘There’s a tendency to seek simple solutions to complicated problems,’ said Southgate. ‘I don’t believe that if a player performs worse, it’s because of this type of [political] engagement. It’s [more] often linked to is relationship with the coach, or tactical and physical factors, his self-confidence.

‘If we can shine a light on things that we think could be different and could improve, then I think we have a responsibility to do that. In the end human beings will be judged on the impact we had on society, how we treated people.

‘Of course, in football, people will be judged on trophies and medals and success, but there’s a balance to be found between those two perceptions, as the chase for trophies is an endless quest. I worked with Roy Keane [for ITV] and was struck by how angry he was at the titles he hasn’t won in his career, even though he’s won a lot more than me. Even if we won the World Cup, we’d still have the Euros to win. So I think if my players have the chance to make a difference, they should.’

Southgate has admitted than anything less than a semi-final appearance would be a failure

In case that was interpreted as a sign that of weakness ahead of Qatar, he was also bold enough in another part of the interview to suggest that anything less than a final or semi-final appearance would be failure.

‘We always speak about wanting to make the country proud,’ said Southgate. ‘If we manage that, then we will have won a few games anyhow. In the last two tournaments, where we have distinguished ourselves, we didn’t know how the players would react, as many of them were first-time players. 

‘In football England historically does not respond well to the pressures and expectations of such big events. But my players know what they’re capable of, They have reached a semi-final and a final so they will be disappointed if they achieved less in Qatar.’

He admitted that England’s Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy last year will live with him forever

England stopped pressing after scoring early on in the game and ended up losing on penalties

Southgate did mention the difficulty of managing the injury situation with an autumn World Cup coming mid-season but he won’t be banging on about fatigue should England fail. ‘I’ve never gone along with that theory,’ said Southgate. 

‘When I played for the national team, our eliminations from tournaments were due to our inability to keep the ball and manage moments of pressure. Since I became coach, I believe the physical and mental preparation we provide has enabled the players to reach a high level.’

Southgate goes into some detail about the failure to seize the opportunity to win the Euro 2020 final, a game lost on penalties and in which England took the lead after two minutes.

‘I would not say I have nightmares [about it]. Of course, it is a defeat that I will always carry with me, for my whole life. I think that having scored after two minutes, subconsciously the team thought to itself: “It’s fine, because we’ve only conceded once in the tournament.” 

‘So we stopped pressing high up the pitch. But I’m more critical of myself than anyone and I have to accept that I’ve only managed 200 games in my career and that I’m continuing to improve.’

Southgate suggested that he is still continuing to improve and believes he is early in his career

When England take on Iran in 15 days’ time in their World Cup opener, they will be wearing a One Love multi-coloured armband, a nod towards LGBT rights: not enough for many, it not being the actual rainbow symbol, yet too much for Gianni no doubt. 

Asked about how a gay footballer would be received, Southgate insists it would be an overwhelmingly positive reception in the England squad. ‘Our dressing room would be totally supportive of a gay player,’ he said.

‘They would give him a hug. I played with Muslims, Jewish players, Christians. The dressing room in professional football is a really tolerant space. What counts is that a team-mate runs and doesn’t give the ball away! I hope more players feel secure enough to be open about their homosexuality because it has a huge effect on many other people in our society who might be afraid of coming out.’

Several captains – including Harry Kane – will wear One Love rainbow armbands in Qatar

Southgate wears his patriotism on his sleeve, as the grandson of a proud Royal Marine, but it isn’t easily manipulated into cheap xenophobia. Asked about England drowning out the German national anthem with jeers and boos at Wembley, he said: ‘I don’t understand why anyone would want to boo another country’s anthem.’

On Brexit too, there is little doubt where his sympathies lie: ‘My children feel just as much Europeans as they do English. They don’t understand Brexit.’

Actually venturing an opinion, daring to intervene in debates is new territory for footballers which will inevitably be held against them should they lose. Perhaps though England should be grateful their manager offers coherent views and isn’t cowed by hostility, even from former Prime Ministers. Those are qualities of resilience he will need in the coming month.

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