If it doesn’t work out for Gareth Southgate as England manager, he should give it a go as foreign secretary. Or perhaps Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson might try it after he retires from playing. Both were able to discuss yesterday the worsening situation between Russia and the UK ahead of the World Cup there, without generating a whirlwind of hysteria – or mentioning Adolf Hitler.
Unlike current incumbent Boris Johnson, who is doing his best to stoke fiery relations between the two countries, Southgate faced the inevitable questions about the politically sensitive tournament with a hose in one hand and a bucket of water in the other.
Inevitable, of course, when a major tournament will commence there in less than three months and Johnson is likening Russian president Vladimir Putin to Hitler.
The only fire in Southgate’s words on the subject were directed at Johnson himself. “It’s little interest to me what the foreign secretary thinks about it,” Southgate said ahead of playing the Netherlands tonight in one of his remaining four friendlies before the tournament. “I was in Russia last year for the Confederations Cup and there were about 15,000 fans from Chile, an incredible atmosphere in the stadiums. It felt like the other World Cups I’d been to.
“It means I have to answer different questions but there has been no suggestion we won’t go to the tournament. The things that are uppermost in our minds are security and safety – and we have no concerns about that.
“Personally, I would [go to the World Cup], I have spent some time in Russia and felt incredibly comfortable there. But for every individual, it is up to them what they want to do.
“The situation is developing so we don’t know what it will be like in June, but on the situation currently, it wouldn’t stop me from going.”
Johnson said there would be an “urgent conversation” with Russia about the safety of supporters. Henderson, in contrast, was able calmly to explain: “At the moment, everything seems pretty good [security wise for us and our families].
“My family want to go and be part of the World Cup. As a squad, we’ve spoken about the security aspect. All seems fine so far but whether that changes down the line, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Southgate also called for calm from England’s supporters, and encouraged them not to add to the political tensions, as they have been known to in the past. “It’s important that our fans come and enjoy the game, support us in the right way, but I’d strongly urge them to behave in the right way and respect our opponents and the country they’re in,” he said. “They’re representing our country, like we are. They mirror the country they’re from.”
If only Southgate’s England squad was as good as his diplomacy. So close to the tournament, there are still questions around his goalkeeper, defence, midfield and, if Harry Kane isn’t fit, attack. Apart from that, the starting XI picks itself when England kick off their tournament against Tunisia on 18 June at the Volgograd Arena.
Matters were not helped by an injury to midfielder Jack Wilshere, who did not travel with the squad to Amsterdam after feeling a twinge in a tendon in his knee. Given Wilshere’s injury history, concerns had grown earlier in the day, but Southgate explained it is an issue the player has been managing for some time and that he could have brought him along. Wilshere could still rejoin the squad on Saturday for the preparations to play Italy at Wembley on Tuesday.
“He’s more experienced with it than I am,” Southgate said. “But it’s definitely not a big problem. We just have to see how it settles. It’s on-going. It’s not uncommon at all for players to experience it. It’s disappointing for him in terms of the game, but given the injuries he’s had and the progress over the past 18 months, he’s made huge strides.”
Southgate insisted the setback would not rule Wilshere, pictured, out of his squad this summer, although the signs are unpromising. “It’s certainly not an ideal situation for Jack,” Southgate said. “But there’s a bigger picture. He’s still a young player who’s come back from serious injuries. Whatever happens over the next few months, there’s a longer future that’s just as important as the next few months. We’d want a player of his talent available and fit, but he’s had to overcome injuries and we have sympathy with that.”