It starts here. That’s what England captain Harry Kane said as the call to prayer drifted over the team’s training base at Al Wakrah early on Friday evening. The preliminaries of the group stage are over and England, unlike Germany and Belgium, survived them unscathed. That was the minimum requirement and now the serious business begins. It starts here. It starts with Senegal, Africa’s champions, at Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday.
Kane exuded positivity and intent as he spoke. He had volunteered to come and talk to the media. He wanted to lead from the front off the pitch as well as on it and to sit side by side with manager Gareth Southgate at the official FIFA media conference on Saturday evening, too. These are the knockout stages. One bad performance and England go home. It is time for their big players to stand up and take responsibility.
Kane, the Golden Boot winner at Russia 2018, has not scored in this World Cup but he has still been one of England’s best players. His class has shone through in the assists he made against Iran and Wales and the way he has linked play. As the debate rages about who should be selected in the forward line alongside him against Senegal, he remains the constant. Marcus Rashford has scored three goals but Kane is still our biggest threat.
Harry Kane has insisted the World Cup is just getting started as England prepare for their last 16 tie with Senegal
Kane wanted to lead from the front and volunteered to speak to the media alongside Gareth Southgate on Saturday night
Kane is yet to score at the World Cup but said he is saving his goals for the knock-out stage
The skipper knows that his team may need him to break his duck against Aliou Cisse’s side, in a stadium that has been constructed in the middle of the desert north of Doha, if they are to progress to the quarter-finals, where a showdown with the world champions, France, would probably await them.
But Senegal are not a team to be patronised. Even without their injured talisman, Sadio Mane, they are a better side than any England have faced here so far.
The bar is set higher for this England team now than it used to be and qualifying from the group phase as joint top scorers of all the original 32 teams has been met with a shrug. England made the semi-finals four years ago and an arrogant revisionism has been allowed to take hold that that somehow represented an under-achievement and, indeed, a missed opportunity.
Senegal will provide a tougher test than any side England have faced so far out in Qatar
England fans have forgotten what it was like to be whipping boys. A new narrative asserts that this is the most talented group of players England have had at their disposal since 1970, and that Senegal, a team who won the Africa Cup of Nations last year, a team who know how to win under pressure and now stand in England’s way in the second round of this World Cup, signify only a minor inconvenience.
Kane — who needs three more goals to beat Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 strikes for his country — is confident that both he and England will start to lengthen their stride now that the stakes are higher. Kane did not score in the group stage of last year’s European Championship, either. Then he scored once against Germany in the second round, twice against Ukraine in the quarter-finals and the winner against Denmark in the last four.
‘The group stage is about just getting through,’ Kane said. ‘You want to finish top, of course. But it is almost a separate tournament now and you have four knockout games to prepare for and it is a totally different mindset. We’ve done the first bit well and feel we had some good positives and things we need to improve. Now it starts again, with a four-game tournament to try to win the World Cup.
‘Back at the 2018 World Cup, I scored a lot of goals in the group stage and then felt, not just my goals but my performances maybe ran out of steam at the back end of the tournament. So at the Euros last year, I was really conscious of trying to taper that so I was physically in a better place and that that would help me score goals later in the tournament.
‘It worked then and I am hoping this will be similar. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have loved to have scored three or four goals by now and any striker would. But I also feel I am in a good place. When you are scoring goals, you are a bit happier and I want to score in every game. But as you get wiser and more experienced, you know you have to be patient. If the goals and chances come your way, be ready to take them.’
Kane insisted he is in a good place with his football despite not yet scoring at the tournament
A survey that was publicised this weekend suggested Kane had received more abuse on social media since the start of the World Cup than any other England player. That may have been something to do with the fact that England retreated from their plan for the captain to wear a One Love armband when they were threatened with sanctions by FIFA but it was also a reminder of the pressure that is his constant companion.
Not scoring represents failure to some, even if Kane is creating goals for others. He knows that that is how he will be judged. All strikers know it, which might explain Cristiano Ronaldo’s desperation to claim a goal for a header he didn’t head for Portugal against Uruguay. Kane smiled at the mention of that. ‘If it had touched me,’ he said, ‘I would have claimed it, too.
‘World Cups and major tournaments in general are such a unique situation. If I had played the last three games for Spurs and I’d had three assists and we had won two and drawn one, everyone would probably be saying look at the form I’m in, whereas in a major tournament, it almost becomes the opposite. You don’t score for a couple games and there’s a real, real spotlight. Going back to Euro 2016, I learned a lot from that because that was a thing I had to deal with too.
A recent survey suggested that the Three Lions captain has received more abuse on social media since the start of the World Cup than any other England player
England, led by Kane are unbeaten at the tournament with the forward clocking three assists
‘I know I will probably always be judged on scoring goals but I feel like my game is a lot more than that. I’ve probably found in this tournament that linking play and maybe getting on the ball a little deeper has helped the team and it’s also great to see the boys being ruthless when they get their chances. Sunday might pose a totally different question, where I might be the one running in behind and trying to stretch them. We’ll have to wait and see.’
He was asked which goals he had liked best in the tournament so far. Vincent Aboubakar’s extravagant lob for Cameroon against Serbia was mentioned. ‘It’s the highest lob I’ve ever seen,’ Kane said. ‘I almost felt like he thought he was offside and felt no pressure, so that was a fantastic goal. There have been some good ones and hopefully, I can add to the list on Sunday.’
Before he left, Kane spoke about how England have not always found it this easy to qualify for the knock-out stages of major tournaments and about the debt that he and the team, and England’s fans, owe to Southgate for changing that. The mindset is different now. Kane distilled it down to a few words. ‘We’ve got four games to win the World Cup,’ he said, ‘and that starts on Sunday.’