For Gareth Southgate, the moment of jeopardy at the World Cup draw came when Lothar Matthäus reached for the second ball from pot two. England were already installed in Group B and everybody knew that the former Germany captain could pull out his own nation to make things pretty spicy.
Southgate had to feel scrambled. His mid-afternoon flight from Heathrow on Thursday had been delayed by eight hours, which meant he landed in Doha at 8.30am on Friday, “which was fine because my first meeting wasn’t until nine o’clock,” the England manager said with a smile. Now he could feel a note of real tension. And then it passed because Matthäus unfurled a slip bearing the name of the United States.
Shortly afterwards, the 1990 World Cup winner put Germany in with Spain and, if the Germany manager, Hansi Flick, tried to look impassive from his seat at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Centre, it was certainly a bit of a battle. Danke, Lothar.
Southgate was on the way to another favourable draw, the impression hardening when Iran were revealed as England’s third opponents. The fourth will be Wales, Scotland or Ukraine, depending on what happens in the final European playoff, which is slated for June, although everybody’s thoughts are primarily for an end to Russia’s senseless offensive on Ukraine.
“That game is going to be highly emotional, whoever it is,” Southgate said. “We all know where our thoughts are with Ukraine and we have to see whether they are even able to play or not. And, of course, if it’s one of the British teams we’ve been through that in tournaments recently. They become unique games. Form is totally out of the window.”
Spain and Germany are in with Japan. Argentina, Mexico and Poland will contest Group C. And there is danger in Group H, which features Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia and Cameroon.
At the very least, Southgate knew that it could have been an awful lot worse, even if his team had driven a part of their luck by getting themselves into the top pot of seeds – a legacy of their runs to the semi-finals of the previous World Cup and the final of Euro 2020. For those tournaments, Southgate’s team had been given good group phase draws before the latter stages opened up for them. The third time is the charm.
“It’s intriguing, isn’t it?” Southgate said. “Because we’ve never played Iran and then the States … I’ve met Gregg Berhalter [the USA manager] a lot recently so we’ve had some good chats and he’s got them vastly improved. This is one of those groups where you’re thinking that some of the ties are potentially trickier than just the rankings. That’s always a danger.”
The England defender, Kyle Walker, was a little more forthright in his assessment. “You’ve got to be happy with the teams we’ve drawn,” Walker said, back in England. “Hopefully it’s not going to bring any surprises. I’m happy with the teams.”
It was lost on nobody that the draw had taken place on April Fool’s Day, what with all of the issues surrounding Qatar’s hosting. And the ceremony certainly took a surreal turn early on when, under migraine-inducing ultra-violet lights, the official mascot was revealed – a small, floating, white-robbed ghost.
La’eeb (an Arabic word meaning super-skilled player) inhabits a parallel, virtual world, where the previous tournament mascots also live. The big screens showed La’eeb travelling there with a virtual version of RedOne, the Fifa creative entertainment executive. There was polite applause at the end of the section.
Southgate’s headache involves the tight turnaround between the pause to the Premier League season on 13 November and England’s opening tie against Iran, which will be on the opening day of the tournament – 21 November, although Walker again took a positive line.
“Over the last two years, we’ve come to adapt to playing every three days,” Walker said. “Going to the World Cup a week after the last Premier League game works in our favour. We’ve still got the rhythm. We know each other very well so it should not be a problem.”
Southgate said that Fifa rules dictated the teams had to be in Qatar five days before their first tie so it probably made sense to fly “reasonably early” because “we know that you can’t do a lot for the first couple of days” after the league finishes. “The players are still recovering,” he added. “So we could get all that out of the way … otherwise you’re losing two days of training, potentially, [at the other end]. We’ll be pretty much into checking up on the injuries and fitness – that will be key. Is it a problem? Well, it would have only been one or two days different if we were starting later. We’ve known that we have to be really well organised on that. It might mean you could have a few players ruled out of the first game for that reason.”
Southgate confirmed that he would lobby the Premier League not to stage massive games on the weekend of 12-13 November. “We’ve been having those conversations quietly in the background,” he said. “I’m sure if they can help, they’ll try to help.”
Berhalter, whose young and athletic US team are ranked 15th in the world, said he had contacted Southgate after he got the job as the manager in December 2018. It was a time when the nation was reeling after the failure to qualify for the Russia World Cup. Previously they had made seven straight appearances at the tournament.
“I reached out to Gareth because of the similarities,” Berhalter said. “I was taking over a young team and I’d seen what he had done. There was always a bit of difficulty in playing for England and they were at a difficult point [when Southgate took over]. He changed the culture. England will be the favourites for most of the games but we understand that. My players are fearless. They do not look back.”