England Gets a Look at Itself, and Isn’t Sure It Likes What It Sees

AL KHOR, Qatar — For four fleeting, glorious days, all was right and all was well in England’s world. Gareth Southgate’s team had cut Iran to ribbons in its first game at the World Cup, a glistening generation of talent dancing and weaving and sparkling on the grandest stage of them all.

He should have known it would not last. That was Monday. By Friday, England was being loudly and roundly — and just a little unfairly — booed from the field by its own fans, the players and particularly the coach informed in no uncertain terms that the fans had not traveled all this way to watch their team be held to a scoreless draw by the United States. There are some indignities, after all, that a Bud Zero cannot heal.

On an entirely practical level, the significance of the result is minimal for England — nothing more than a bad day at the office, the sort of thing that can be swiftly shaken off and may, in a few weeks’ time, be relegated to a mere footnote.

Should England beat Wales in its final group game on Tuesday, it will qualify for the tournament’s next stage at the top of its group, earning (in theory) a kinder draw in the first knockout round. Even a tie against Wales would, at the very least, be enough to ensure progress. It will be an irritation that Southgate cannot rest players for that game, that he cannot manage minutes and reduce burden, but he is hardly short on options. It is nothing terminal.

Emotionally, though, in terms of all those airy intangibles that coalesce during a tournament into something real and physical, it is different. England came into the World Cup on the back of a dispiriting year. Southgate’s popularity, once sufficiently high to give the waistcoat an unexpected and thankfully brief comeback, had plummeted.

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

There were questions over the players he was selecting and those he was not. There was a reprise of the old accusation that his tendency toward caution was wasting the first golden generation of talent that the country had possessed since the last one. England, the fan base, had decided it could win this tournament, and it had decided whom it would blame if it did not.

Gareth Southgate’s England can win its World Cup group by beating Wales on Tuesday.Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The manner of victory against Iran — that sense of a team being let off the leash — brought all of that to a screeching halt. The mood at home has been quietly triumphant; the impressive performances of France and Spain and Brazil were weighed up in relation to England’s.

The atmosphere among the squad members, even with the quarrel over the decision not to wear the One Love armband in the opening game rumbling unsatisfactorily on, has also been chipper, upbeat.

That this squad is a little older, a little wiser, is perhaps best illustrated by its choice of pastime. In Russia, four years ago, the players spent their downtime on the video game Fortnite, all bright colors and cartoon gore; here, they have been playing Werewolf, a taut, slow-burning psychological party game in which the aim is to hide your true identity (which is that you are a werewolf). This is a team at ease with itself.

In the white heat of a World Cup, particularly one as condensed as this, that counts for something. England was not the most attractive team at the 2018 World Cup; it did not cut a swath through its opposition. Instead, it was solid and unyielding and scored from corners; but still, it could gradually build momentum, a sense of something happening, that transmitted itself to the fans, both on the ground and watching on television. World Cups, particularly for a country operating under as much pressure as England, are about vibes.

The risk now is that the energy changes, as a consequence not so much of Friday’s result against the United States but of the performance. This, in stark contrast to Iran, was the England that the fans had feared would appear in Qatar: hesitant, reluctant, its caution recast not as a virtue but as a vice.

There are, of course, mitigating circumstances. England, for one, is not likely to be the last of the favorites to find it difficult to maintain its form when afforded only two full days’ rest between games. Nor would it be the only team to struggle to find much fluency when faced with an opponent as organized and as ferocious in its pressing as the United States.

And yet those mitigating factors are not quite sufficient to assuage the doubts. That England was struggling both to assert control and to create chances was obvious not long after halftime; still, though, Southgate proved reluctant to turn to the vast array of firepower stockpiled on his bench. He stood, and he watched, and he waited.

England fans at Friday’s game.Credit…Ashley Landis/Associated Press

What he saw — what everyone saw — was Harry Kane drifting deeper and deeper down the field, as if his loneliness at the head of England’s attack had left him in search of some connection with his teammates and, ideally, a couple of touches of the ball.

Not until the 68th minute did Southgate attempt any corrective action, and even then, it did not work. England’s first shot of the second half — a tame, somewhat speculative effort from Marcus Rashford, one of the three substitutes introduced as the clock ticked — arrived with only three minutes left to play.

Southgate, as was to be expected, seemed unruffled afterward by the intimation that his team had lacked ambition. He acknowledged that his players had lacked “a little zip,” but he praised the composure of his central defenders and expressed his admiration that his team had stuck to the principles he has spent six years honing.

In reality, though, the true test is still to come, when the blissful serenity that marked England’s first week here is replaced by a scrutiny that is at once familiar and fearful, when the mood is no longer quite so relaxed, when the ends start to fray and the tension starts to simmer. Then, and only then, will England be able to know its true identity.

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