In the narrow alleyways and streets of Al Wakrah Souq, the bustling evening crowds include a young mum in a hijab kicking a football for her toddler son as a mini train carrying children weaves its way down the seafront.
On the beach, men in traditional Arab robes offer camel rides, while the camels themselves honk with apparent indignation. And glossy posters in English aimed at evangelising visitors pronounce ‘Smiling is a form of charity — Prophet Muhammad.’
This is the Qatar the World Cup organisers want you to see, where the Arabian Gulf laps gently on the beach, the temperature is a pleasant 25 degrees once the sun goes down and children play football in the streets. Meanwhile their parents cheer on fellow Arab nation Morocco against Canada, sat around the big screen TVs, specially installed in the swish restaurants where the inviting aroma of spicy grilled lamb fills the promenade.
England are staying in the Al Wakrah Souq area of Doha, a far cry from the high-rise architectural brashness of the city centre
On the beach, which is on the Arabian Gulf, men in traditional Arab robes offer camel rides
It is far cry from the high-rise architectural brashness of Doha. Here, a few miles down the coast, they have recreated what the fishing village would have looked like a hundred years ago.
Only the ring of bored policemen sitting on chairs guarding some of the alleys’ walls gives you the hint that important guests are in town. On the other side of those walls are alluring palm trees lit by fairy lights which sit poolside by the sun loungers and bean bags, in a courtyard outdoor area with a huge cinema screen and massage table.
This is where the England players go to play after training at the Souq Al Wakra Hotel. And if occasionally they hear the sound of wolves howling beyond those walls, the locals need not be alarmed. It’s just the England players engaging in a spot of bonding.
Their winding-down routine has seen the players enjoying a late evening session of the role-play card game Werewolf. It’s like a children’s party game. Cards are handed out, some are given the roles of wolves, the majority are villagers and through a process of interrogation, the villagers have to seek out the wolves, who will lie and bluff their way through pretending to be villagers. Conor Coady, one of the strongest and most extroverted personalities in the squad, organises the game as the moderator. ‘He’s there in the middle, running it like a TV game show host!’ said one observer.
Though the team, medical staff, management all dine together in the outdoor poolside restaurants at around 9pm, the party game afterwards is exclusively the preserve of the players. Often up to 12 or 15 of the squad might sit around playing late into the evening. Raucous laughter is the soundtrack, Coady revelling in his role with the likes of Harry Kane, Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Bukayo Saka attempting to bluff and counter bluff their way to victory.
England’s players have bonded at their hotel by playing the role-play card game Werewolf
Eric Dier brought the game into the England camp after its popularity at his club Tottenham
‘The villagers have to search out the wolf and it’s who’s the best liar,’ said Rice. ‘Conor is the narrator and the lads have a big discussion [over who are the wolves]. There’s a lot of team work, a lot of ganging up! You vote every round on who the wolves are and when the wolves win, they do the wolf sound.’ So that sound of howling in Al Wakrah was not their dismay at the 0-0 draw with the USA.
On the simplest level, it’s good wholesome fun. On another, it is a sign of how far England have travelled. ‘The spirit within the group is a huge aspect of international football,’ said Eric Dier, who introduced the game which is popular at Tottenham. ‘You never have enough time to be as good tactically as you would at your club. It’s just not possible to achieve a lot of things that you can in a club set-up where you’re with each every day of your lives. There’s lot of things you can’t get.
‘But one thing you can, is that spirit. It’s definitely something that we’ve had in the last major tournaments. In the last World Cup we definitely had it and looking from the outside at the Euros, it looked the same. You feel it now, too. There are different things each tournament and this time it’s the wolf game which brings everyone together, breaks the ice.’
Even if the prison-like conditions of Camp Capello’s 2010 training base in Rustenburg, South Africa were perhaps overstated, the lack of a team dynamic wasn’t. The closest that squad got to team bonding and laughter was Fabio Capello ending his ban on tomato ketchup and butter, which he feared encouraged the players to eat too much bread. Back then — and as Kyle Walker recently related, in the Roy Hodgson era — players disappeared to their rooms with their PCs and PlayStations and, from 2012, social media, between games. Capello imagined they would read a book if bored.
Sports psychologist Michael Caulfield is a long-term friend of Gareth Southgate (left) since a chance meeting at Middlesbrough in 2006, which led to Southgate employing Caulfield during his spell as manager at the club. He now works at Brentford but they have stayed in touch since that first meeting on friendship basis rather than a professional one.
Gareth Southgate has created a calm and enjoyable atmosphere within the England squad
The impressive team dynamic is a far cry from the days of prison-like conditions in South Africa in 2010 under Fabio Capello during England’s dismal World Cup campaign
‘We don’t discuss England ever,’ he says. ‘Our friendship is based on far better things such as discussing the merits of Morecombe and Wise (above) and a good dog walk.’
However, those long chats about the merits of the iconic comic duo do stray into professional areas, as Caulfield explains. ‘You have to have to trust to work in football because it’s not an industry that breeds trust and that’s a word I do discuss with Gareth over the years.’ The pair shared a passion for Eric Morecambe and Caulfield recalls one of his more famous jokes. Asked for the secret to good comedy, the comedian replied before the question finished: ‘Timing.’
‘And the audience laughed. In our role [as psychologist or manager] it’s all about timing. The trick is to work out what days a player wants to say “good morning” over breakfast [and talk] and what days they don’t. Who’s interested today, who’s not? Coaching is the same. Some days you can, some days you can’t. Time the question wrong and you’re on back foot forever. You’re better off waiting.’
Southgate inherited an England squad scarred by history. Even going back just 12 years, there were Capello’s years of old-school non-communication. There was ‘out in two game’ farce of Brazil 2014, when Hodgson had tried to do what Southgate did and get in touch with his softer side by employing psychiatrist Steve Peters.
‘Roy tried to take a different stance in how he dealt with players,’ recalled Wayne Rooney. ‘He was trying to manage a little more calmly. Then we lost twice and by the third game you could see all that was out of the window and he got his angry head on again!’ Rooney preferred angry Roy. At least you knew where you were.
Southgate and his England side have continued to create history at recent tournaments
Southgate has emboldened team spirit in the camp and made playing for England fun again
Southgate though has invested in building-up the softer skillset of his squad over six years. Should they win today it will be the culmination of work done since 2016. And should they win, it will be the first time since 1966-1970, when England went winner, semi, quarters, that England will have put three consecutive decent tournaments together.
Little reported but keenly felt are the personal trips he makes to seek out his players between games. So he travelled to Dortmund last spring to spend time with Jude Bellingham, a teenager navigating being on the brink of superstardom yet also living abroad. Dortmund were said to be hugely impressed and appreciative.
Last summer, despite the fact Marcus Rashford hadn’t been in the squad for a year, Southgate took time out over the summer to be with him. After all, Rashford was one of the trio of players at the centre of the racist backlash for the missed penalties against Italy. ‘He had some clear ideas on things he felt he needed to think about and to do,’ said Southgate. ‘You can see at his club there’s been happiness in his performances this year. That’s shown itself on the training ground all the time with us. We’ve got a different version completely to the player we had in the Euros last summer.’
Several of this squad will testify to the personal touch. And he uses skills learnt in his own Generation X to coax the best out of Gen Z England. ’He uses the emotional intelligence that existed decades ago,’ says Caulfield. ‘We did getting to know people better in pre-digital era, as the only conversations you could have were in person. He relies heavily on that rather than sending a [text] message or doing it on Zoom.’
It’s a skillset that has been invested in this squad, devoid, so far of cliques. Bellingham, a Birmingham native and huge Birmingham City fan, recalled last week his nervousness at his first England call up and wondering whether Jack Grealish, who played at rivals Aston Villa, might be a little cool with him. In previous generations, new England players weren’t exactly embraced into the fold. ‘The first encounter I had in the squad, I came down for lunch and I’m playing for Blues and Jack was with Villa at the time and I was thinking: “Will it be awkward?”’ said Bellingham. ‘So I came to the lunch line and he just gave me a massive hug straightaway. And I just felt: “This going to be sound.”’
Caulfield cites the book written by the son of legendary Southampton and England striker Mick Channon a footballer forged in the 1970s. ‘The opening line is his dad telling him: “Don’t show no f***** weakness.” And I get that on the field of play. But the days of a barking general in a trenchcoat on the side of pitch doesn’t win players now. The world changes and evolves and you can’t just stand still and wait for it to change back to you. He has an extraordinary skill to engage with generations younger than him, because he believes in them, he treats them well and they respect him for backing them. I understand the necessity, the clamour and the forest of books written about tactics — and if you work at Brentford, you really understand that. But you cannot go anywhere without emotional intelligence.’
Southgate though has invested in building-up the softer skillset of his squad over six years
That said, get his 4-3-3 wrong tonight and the narrative will change. Win tonight and the hysteria will return. Southgate will doubtless treat that with the same equanimity that he greeted the boos.
Southgate has always spoken to this squad about writing their own history, emphasising that they had very little to live up to. Over six years they have done that: reaching their first final since 1966, their first World Cup semi since 1990, winning their first penalty shoot-out since 1996 and winning their first knock-out game since 2006.
Now, on the walls of the hotel and at their training ground are photos specially commissioned for this trip. With a local touch, they are images designed from Arabic script. It includes iconic moments from the past six years: Jordan Henderson embracing Southgate, Saka on an inflatable unicorn, the players, ecstatic, sprinting across the pitch to celebrate together after Dier scored the penalty that knocked out Colombia in the last 16 four years ago at Russia 2018. It’s time to channel those memories and then write a couple more pages of a new England history.