Gareth Southgate planning for World Cup despite ongoing tensions
Political tensions have caused concern.
Manager Gareth Southgate is fully focused on leading England to the World Cup despite the potential repercussions of heightened tensions between the UK and tournaments hosts Russia.
A large political cloud hung over the announcement of the final Three Lions squad before the team is whittled down for a tournament that is now just three months away.
Tensions between the UK and Russia continue to bubble in the fallout to the nerve agent attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.
Russia has denied any involvement in the attack but Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed on Wednesday that UK dignitaries, including members of the royal family, will not attend this summer’s tournament as part of a wide-ranging response.
Talk of England boycotting the World Cup has even been bandied about.
When asked in the Commons about Football Association senior officials travelling to the finals, Mrs May said she was “sure they will want to be considering their position” but stressed it was their decision to make.
Press Association Sport understands Sports Minister Tracey Crouch has been in contact with the FA to reinforce the Prime Minister’s message, but England manager Southgate continues to plan for the tournament unabated.
“Clearly, it’s a really serious matter and it’s developing very quickly,” he said at St George’s Park as Mrs May spoke in Salisbury.
“But my job as the England football manager is to concentrate on the football and prepare the team.
“As far as all my briefings and information is, we’re preparing to go to the World Cup, there’s no doubt in our mind that’s what we should be doing.
“And the only thing at this stage that is of highest importance is the safety and security of our players and absolutely of our travelling supporters.
“So, they’re the things we’re focused on, really.”
Southgate is “very conscious of the seriousness” of the matter, but the fact remains that “we are desperate to go to a World Cup”.
The England manager was keen not to get too deep into matters out of his control, claiming not to have thought about the national team potentially being used as a political tool or the government eventually encouraging the squad not to go.
“My job is focus on the football, is to focus on preparing the team and I think the public wouldn’t expect anything else,” Southgate said.
“We have important positions throughout our organisation where their priority is to deal with those issues and I’ve got to make sure I don’t get distracted by things that are outside of my control, whether that’s political or football.”
But Southgate, understandably, acknowledged that safety is a key matter for all parties.
Robert Sullivan, the FA’s strategy and communications director, joined the England manager at the squad announcement and underlined the governing body’s focus on preparations on and off the pitch.
“A key fundamental in that is safety and security of our participants, players, our employees and of course our supporters and that’s where our primary focus will be,” he said.
“It is not for us to make those broader political judgements.”
Sullivan added that the FA has long had the “right relationships and right apparatus in place” for all parties to be properly prepared for the tournament.
However, fans’ reluctance to head to Russia has only been compounded this political flare-up, with the Foreign Office warning those travelling to Russia in the coming weeks about the “possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time”.
Southgate stressed the importance for everybody to feel safe at the World Cup, from fans to players, support staff and their families.
“We’re all human beings and we’re all effected by events around us and things that might distract us from our job,” he said.
“It’s unrealistic to think any other of anybody in any profession.
“So, that’s why it’s important as a manager that I’ve got the right support around the players, around the support team as well because they’re in the same position.”
Whatever pans out with Russia over the next three months, the current situation is certainly threatening to overshadow the tournament.
“Again, we don’t know how this is all going to play out,” Southgate added.
“We don’t know the timescales, we don’t know any of the areas that might happen over the coming months.
“So, I am involved in preparing the team, preparing the support team. I will always be aware of what’s going on in the world, but my focus has to be on the things I can control.”