England train with a rubber chicken but will be all business vs. Croatia
MOSCOW -- Gareth Southgate was probably expecting a tougher opening question ahead of the biggest game of his managerial career, but as the England coach addressed the media in the build-up to Wednesday's World Cup semifinal against Croatia, it was all about a rubber chicken.
Not the threat of Croatia, Luka Modric's ability to carve open the best defences in the world or even Raheem Sterling's ongoing search for his first goal of the tournament. The big issue was this: why Southgate's players had started their training session at Repino on Tuesday morning by throwing around a rubber chicken?
"That's exactly what I asked our fitness coach as well," said Southgate in Moscow. "What is that all about?
"Our physical performance coaches try to keep refreshing the warm-ups for the players and keep them stimulated, using a bit of fun to get them moving. Just some mobility exercises."
Fun and lightheartedness has been a running thread throughout England's World Cup campaign, which next sees them at the Luzhniki Stadium for their first semifinal since 1990.
As reported by ESPN FC on Monday, the inflatable unicorn races in the swimming pool at England's Repino base, as well as the Fortnite competitions, darts and 10-pin bowling, have turned this World Cup campaign into what Ashley Young described as a "holiday." But underneath it all, there remains the serious business of attempting to become world champions for a second time.
Football is apparently coming home, but it will be taking a wrong turn once again if England lose to Croatia. Right now, though, everyone is enjoying the ride, and Southgate admits that the frenzied support back in England is beginning to filter through to his players in Russia.
"Our country has had a long time of suffering in terms of football," he said. "The enthusiasm they have for these players, not only because of the way they've played but how they've conducted themselves, we can feel the energy and support from home, and that's a privilege for us.
"Our country has been through some difficult moments recently in terms of its unity, but sport can unite. Football can unite and this has been an enjoyable experience."
Southgate, who confirmed that all 23 members of his squad are fit and available to face Croatia, is experienced enough to know that winning is all that truly matters at this stage.
England have not won a major trophy since the World Cup in 1966 and have only reached two semifinals since: in 1990 and at Euro '96, when Southgate became a poster boy for the tournament for the wrong reason after missing the decisive penalty in the shootout defeat against Germany.
Southgate admits he sees similarities between the run to the 1996 semifinal and this one in Russia, although it's best not mention to him that football is coming home.
"Home?" said Southgate. "I couldn't listen to it for 20 years, frankly.
"It has a slightly different feel for me, but it's nice to hear people enjoying it again.
"But the feel of this group of players is very similar to the player we had [in 1996]. That team was a lot more experienced in terms of its age and experience of big matches, though, and had tactical understanding and technically good players.
"We have emerging leaders. [In 1996], that team had six captains of their clubs. There was a lot of leadership in the group. But we have approached it the same way, a lot of guys enjoying our football and enjoying it at the time. That is what these guys have done.
"It's another step in a journey. We feel we're in a good place playing well, but football is a low scoring game with random events that can happen. I'm certain our team will play well, and I have complete trust they'll go and play in the way they have throughout this tournament."
Croatia are a challenge for England. They may have been forced to overcome Denmark and Russia with penalty shootouts, but they cruised through their group with a 100 percent record and possess world-class stars such as Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
Jordan Henderson, who has been pivotal to England's progress in his defensive midfield role so far, admits that Modric is a crucial player who must be stopped.
"I can't tell you our plan, but the players you've mentioned are fantastic players," said Henderson. "I feel they're a fantastic team, working for each other and together, which is why they're in a semifinal of a World Cup.
"I've played against Modric a few times: he's a world-class player, one of the best I've played against. Hopefully he has a quiet night [on Wednesday] and we'll try our best to make sure that happens.
"Others, too, because they have threats from different areas. Hopefully we'll go out there and implement our plan."
Southgate's plan has worked so far, so much so that an influx of England fans is anticipated in Moscow on Wednesday -- many of them have bought into "Waistcoat Wednesday" in tribute to Southgate's World Cup outfit.
"I was not a renowned fashion icon through my playing career, so it's rather strange to be one now," Southgate joked.
If England win on Wednesday, though, Southgate and his players will become more than mere fashion icons. They'll be one game from being World Cup winners.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_