Youthful England intent on enjoying the ride at World Cup
ZELENOGORSK, Russia (AP) — With indie music blaring out around the training complex, England's players strolled out for their first World Cup practice session in Russia and were soon bestowed with a large tea urn and a loaf of bread as symbols of local hospitality.
Later, they would joke around and take selfies with school children from the local area — Zelenogorsk, just outside St. Petersburg — who waved England flags as their idols trained in front of them.
About the same time Wednesday at the other end of Russia, Spain fired its coach and was starting the World Cup seemingly in turmoil. For England, nothing of the sort. In fact, rarely has an England squad come to a major soccer tournament with such a relaxed and easygoing attitude.
"I think that's how we've wanted to make it as a team," England striker Jamie Vardy said, "nice and relaxed and enjoyable, where we can have a laugh and a giggle."
The real business begins Monday, when England plays Tunisia in Volgograd in its first group game. For the country which invented the game and which is without an international title in 52 years, the expectation is usually nearly intolerable.
But this year, there's a feeling that the pressure is off and that a relatively inexperienced squad — the second youngest in the competition — is intent on enjoying the ride.
"Personally," Vardy said, moments after finishing training, "I think when you're enjoying it more, you play your best football."
The last sighting of England's players at a major tournament was in 2016, when they sat on their field in despair and held their heads in their hands after a humiliating Round of 16 loss to tiny Iceland at the European Championship. Two years earlier, the English were eliminated at the group stage of the World Cup in Brazil.
The England jersey has weighed heavily in recent years, with media criticism often strong and squad harmony affected by rivalries from the club scene in the domestic Premier League. Meanwhile, the apathy between the national team and its fans has grown.
Fully aware of this, Gareth Southgate sought to change the climate around the England squad after taking over as manager in late 2016. Out went many established players — captain Wayne Rooney among them — to be gradually replaced by a younger generation without any baggage. Southgate also began addressing the disconnect with fans and media.
An example was in England last week, when all 23 squad members fronted up for a Super Bowl-style media day ahead of the World Cup. It was all refreshingly open, a clear departure from Euro 2016 when players were guarded and goalkeeper Joe Hart refused to answer light-hearted questions about who won the darts match at the team hotel.
"I think there has been a disconnect from the country and the fans with the players," Southgate said. "We recognize that, and part of that was maybe not knowing how much they care and not knowing their backgrounds and so we have tried to have an effect on that."
The English public seems to have warmed to it. Despite a routine qualification campaign and encouraging friendly results that include draws against Brazil and Germany and wins this month over Nigeria and Costa Rica, few believe England will progress beyond the quarterfinals. Even reaching the last 16 is progress.
So there is unlikely to be too much of a backlash, provided the England team shows effort and heart in Russia.
"We want the nation to be behind us," Vardy said, "but we've got to make sure we put the performances in to make sure they have a reason to get behind us."
To the rest of the world, England remains a big deal at major tournaments. Welcoming England's players onto the field at training, local administrators said it was a "privilege that England, the motherland of football, chooses to use our training ground."
Children scream the name of England's players near the team hotel at Repino. There were lots of international camera crews at training, following the progress of players such as Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling who are stars of the Premier League.
One player missing Wednesday was Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford, who was absent because of a minor knee injury.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80