Gareth Southgate, the England manager, has promised his players will do everything in their power to repay the loyalty of the fans travelling to Russia for the World Cup and put a smile on the faces of everybody back home.
They will be joined in Russia by thousands of England fans, who have bought a total of 32,362 tickets for World Cup matches, a figure that is a long way down on past tournaments amid safety fears and political tensions.
That number is a long way down on previous figures, amid safety fears and political tensions, but Southgate is determined to make sure the travelling supporters do not have a wasted trip this time around.
England flopped badly at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and were knocked out of the 2016 European Championships by Iceland, but Southgate wants to at least send fans away from Russia happy.
“We ask people to pay a lot of money to watch football,” he said. “In the end, we want to entertain where we possibly can.
“We are seeing that this is a team who is enjoying each other’s company, getting on well, are very proud to represent their nation, have some talent, have a real desire and determination to play for England and are determined to play in a style that people are warming to and are enjoying watching.
“I’ve talked before about there being a disconnect between the supporters and the team, and I’ve felt that there’s different ways to bridge that and the most important is the way you play, and your performances and your results. We know everything else comes on the back of that.
“I think there was a shift in November when we brought in some of the younger players. There was a clear shift in the identity of the team, we went to a back three and people have been warmed by that, not only the young players in this squad, but the young players in the system, the success with the junior teams. The Under-17s World Cup win in particular came at a moment where the profile of our young players was really high.
“We are just trying to improve every day we work together. We know we are not the finished article, in fact we’re a long way from, but I think people see signs of progress and enjoy watching us and the manner in which we try to play.”
With England not expected to win the World Cup, Southgate was asked what will make a successful tournament for his team.
“Our focus as a team has to be on the bits we can control,” he answered. “Constantly trying to improve, playing in a style that we’ve used in the last year or so and that people have warmed to and, of course, if we do all of those things and we play with a smile on our face and we enjoy our football, enjoy being in a tournament then I think we will get results.
“Ultimately we know we’ll be judged on results, but we have to focus on the processes. We hope we can send people to work the following day having enjoyed those matches, I know what those tournament experiences can be like and we desperately want to bring that.
“The style is clear: we’ve selected players who can use the ball and the level of training is incredibly high at the moment, I have to say. It’s a great challenge for every player to come in. All the players right throughout the team can use the ball well so when we are defending (against) pressing it’s very difficult to win the ball back. That’s a very good sign that the level of the players is very high.”
Following three weeks of preparation, Southgate admits he and his players are now looking forward to starting the tournament against Tunisia next Monday.
“I think we’re all looking forward to getting on with the tournament now, there’s been such a long preparation,” said Southgate. “We’ve had weeks now together with a really good training camp and really pleased with the performances in the two games, and we just want to get out to the tournament now, get out to Russia and experience all the feeling of being in a World Cup in that host country.
“I’m very proud, there’s no question about that. I’m a very proud Englishman and I’ve said before that to play for my country was my only goal as a kid, so now to be managing and leading my country to a World Cup is an extra special moment. I recognise the responsibility that brings but also I’m enjoying that challenge.”