The final question to Gareth Southgate at England’s pre-match press conference last night came from a French journalist and concerned the possibility of a quarter-final meeting with the world champions.
Southgate, sat on the top table in the 400-capacity auditorium on the ground floor of the Doha Exhibition and Convention Centre, listened attentively through his translation earpiece before pointedly closing the subject down.
“We play Senegal tomorrow. There’s nothing else to discuss,” he said. It wasn’t rude – Southgate is never rude – but it was sufficiently direct to make the point that England have eyes for only this game.
Looking too far ahead, whether you are the favourites or not, does not do at a World Cup.
If England get this wrong their tournament ends out in the desert at the Al Bayt Stadium tonight and with it maybe Southgate’s reign as well. There is a lot on the line for all concerned.
A round of 16 exit against Senegal, African champions or not, would be perceived as a failure. And failure, whatever the credit in the bank, usually ends only one way for a manager. The knives would no doubt be out.
But the perception of those who have spent time in Southgate’s orbit over the past few months is that when England’s World Cup adventure ends he could well choose to leave of his own volition anyway.
Twelve months ago Southgate signed a contract extension with the FA which in theory takes him through until 2024. But there has been a sense in his relaxed demeanour through September’s Nations League games and the group stage here that however Qatar turns out, he may well have decided privately that six years is enough in ‘the impossible job’.
This will be his 80th match in charge.
Maybe standing on the touchline at Molineux in June as his team slumped to a 4-0 defeat to Hungary with thousands of supporters telling him – the man who had taken England to a World Cup semifinal and a Euros final – he didn’t know what he was doing has coloured his thinking.
Even yesterday, a day away from the tension of the knockout stages, it was ringing out. The cruelty of this part of the tournament is that the laughter can turn to tears in a heartbeat.
Defender John Stones was asked on Friday to consider the fact that an England defeat could spell the end of the Southgate era. He did not want to think about it, he said, given the environment the England manager has helped to create for the squad and the success they have enjoyed together.
The England players want all this to go on forever but in sport it never does. The best they can do is to kick the can – and the moment of reckoning – down the road. One game at a time, just like Southgate says.