CAPE TOWN – Sometimes it doesn’t need a bullhorn to get the requisite response. Sometimes it doesn’t require Thor’s hammer to blaze a trail and chart a new path forward. And, more often than not, the solution is not to be found in self-centred brashness.
In a football world populated with attention-seeking narcissists and garrulous egotists, there’s Gareth Southgate; in a football world where coaches and managers believe everything is only about them, there’s the understated, self-effacing presence of England manager Southgate. He has been a real breath of fresh air in a sport where, far too often, managers tend to deliberately rip the spotlight from players through their gratuitous touchline antics, fiery personalities, confrontational demeanour and look-at-me attitudes.
Southgate represents the quintessential common man - you and me - and he’s proven quiet is loud in its own way, calm has its own arrogance, and football has a place for dignity and sophistication.
The fact his unassuming, unpretentious manner has managed to inspire this England team to greater heights is fantastic for football; it’s a trend that may just bring more such coaches and managers into the sport - because there needs to be a change to the general perception that football coaches should be despotic, loudmouth disciplinarians.
People are different, people are unique - and so, too, by definition, are players and coaches. Southgate’s admirable sangfroid and implacable cool have certainly rubbed off on the England players, hence their improved composure, mental fortitude and self-belief.
More importantly, in turning attention to what Southgate has done on the field, perhaps the best is that he hasn’t been swayed by names. I think, in the past, England managers have tried to fit and force all the ostensible “big names” into a playing system and it hasn’t worked. Southgate has chosen a way to play and then picked players to suit the structure: if players missed out, irrespective of who they are, then so be it.
And that approach has created the feeling in the squad that each and every player is significant to the whole: no stars, just common men, like Southgate, like every member of the England squad - and symbolically, like you and me - all working towards a common goal.
* The main talking point around tonight’s 2018 World Cup semi-final (8pm) is whether fatigue will eventually take its toll on Croatia.
They’ve played 120 minutes twice and, not just that, they’ve obviously been emotionally drained by two tense, heart-stopping penalty shoot-out victories over Denmark and Russia.
Is there anything left, both physically and mentally? Other points to ponder for the Croats are their vulnerability at set-piece time - corners and free-kicks - and then there’s the Luka Modric conundrum.
How do they deploy their best player against England? At this tournament, manager Zlatko Dalic has alternated between using the Real Madrid star in a more forward-thrusting role or in a slightly withdrawn, deep-lying midfield position.
Whatever the decision is, this is a fixture that should finally offer some challenge to England. Because, let’s be honest, the English haven’t really been tested yet. For all the hype around the team, we still don’t know how they will respond during times of pressure.
And this Croatian side will ask some serious questions about England’s resolve: the bullying of the aggressive Mario Mandzuki, the craft of Ivan Rakiti, the guile of Ante Rebic and, of course, the 2018 World Cup’s favourite for the Golden Ball award, the incomparable Modric.
Will England be able to withstand the heat? Let’s see.