SAINT PETERSBURG: England manager Gareth Southgate hopes his team can ride the momentum generated by their run to the World Cup semi-finals and follow the path Germany took to the top of international football.
Southgate and his players have been hailed back home after reaching the last four for the first time since 1990, and for bringing together a nation bitterly divided over Brexit.
“They see a team that leaves everything on the pitch, which they have, and played with style. I think the public have enjoyed it,” Southgate said before Saturday’s third place play-off against Belgium.
“They’ve got to know the players a little bit better and realised the perception is different from the reality. I feel there’ll be an affinity and something we can build on.”
He used the example of the feel-good aspect of Germany’s performance at the 2006 finals, where the hosts — with a young team like the current England crop — won over a nation despite losing to Italy in the semi-finals.
“The youth and enthusiasm of the team propelled them back into the minds of their public,” said Southgate.
“The downside was it took them another eight years to win (the World Cup). I’m not looking for eight years by the way but internationally you have to wait every two years.
“We’ll be stronger then because of age and big-match experiences that build resilience.”
Bobby Robson and Terry Venables, the last two men to lead England to semi-finals — at the 1990 World Cup and Euro 96 — left their jobs immediately afterwards.
However, Southgate has a contract until 2020, which could be extended until beyond the 2022 World Cup, giving England stability.
– As good as it gets? –
“We’ve set a benchmark for how we work,” he said. “There is a culture that exists now that any new player that comes in has to follow.”
“We’re here to improve every time we play,” he continued.
“There were low expectations that relieved the pressure coming into the tournament but still pressure to get out of the group, win a knockout game and win a shootout and they coped with that.
“If you want to play for England you have to cope with that. Players can now associate playing for England with enjoyment, fun and not feeling under siege as if everything is against them.”
The sense that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity may have passed Southgate and his squad by still clearly resonates with the England boss.
“None of us knows if that’s as good as it gets,” he said, after England were beaten 2-1 by Croatia in extra-time on Wednesday.
“We were 20 minutes from a World Cup final and then in extra-time about 10 minutes from penalties to get into the final.”
Southgate admitted the challenge of preparing for a consolation game has been tough with the raw emotion following Wednesday’s defeat.
“In terms of mentality it’s obviously been a really difficult couple of days for us,” he said, revealing there would be some changes for the Belgium game.
“It won’t be exactly the same starting XI, but ideally we want to make as few changes as possible. We have the chance to win a medal at the World Cup, which only one other English team has ever done.
“There’s a lot of motivation for us. Belgium have already beaten us (1-0 in the group stage) so we’d like to address that.” —AFP