Gareth is a man with a plan, and I have faith he can make this team World Cup winners

Focus will be on team bonding and families in a relaxed environment

ByJesse Lingard England World Cup semi-finalist joins The Mail on Sunday



dmg media (UK)

World Cup 2022

ENGLAND’S form perhaps hasn’t been the best in recent times and they are far from favourites to win this World Cup. But as someone who has had the honour of playing and scoring for England at the biggest tournament, and playing in a World Cup semi-final, I know this England squad has the strength and capability to do well, and even win in Qatar. The mixture of experience and youth in Gareth Southgate’s squad is key. That blend of players who have been there and achieved things — like the group who reached the 2018 semi-final and Euro 2020 final — along with the rising stars is tantalising. I’m loathe to pick out individuals but Jude Bellingham epitomises the potential: just 19 years old but massively talented, thriving at Dortmund and someone who can play a big part for England. There are 11 players in the squad aged 25 or under from Bukayo Saka at 21 and Phil Foden at 22 to Marcus Rashford at 25. There is some wonderful talent there and I believe this England team can go all the way if things run our way. There’s an argument about being too reliant on Harry Kane for goals. Harry is the talisman and scores plenty. But there are others more than capable of chipping in, whether that’s Marcus or Phil, or Raz [Sterling] among others. Getting out of the group stage is the first hurdle and it’s not necessarily going to be as simple as some people assume. Group B is the only group where all four nations — England, the USA, Iran and Wales — are currently in the top 20 in the world rankings. But I believe England will do it and then anything can happen in a tournament as confidence grows. A potential string of knockout rounds that could possibly mean England have to beat Senegal, France, Spain and Brazil to lift the trophy sounds daunting. Of course it does! But Gareth has a plan, as he did when we reached the World Cup semifinal four years ago, and I have faith in that. I know from the experience of 2018 what type of atmosphere he’ll be building in Qatar. It will focus on families and bonding. My mum and dad, brother and best mate were all able to come and visit us in 2018 and that was important. Other players’ families did the same. It was an inclusive and relaxed environment. Everything we could possibly need in 2018 was provided, from basketball to a pool — and those unicorn lilos! — to table tennis and time with people who matter most to us. Gareth is central to that — he’s brilliant. I was with him in the under-21s and he had a belief in me that helped me hugely. Steve Holland, his assistant manager, is also an important figure. These opportunities don’t come around often for most players — the chance of winning a World Cup. Certainly being in Russia was the pinnacle of my career and reaching a semi-final that we could have won. At the time, I didn’t really see the tournament and those matches as the massive games they were: you focus on the next match, another ‘normal’ game, so you don’t get overwhelmed. It’s when you look back that you really appreciate what a momentous occasion it is. Only a few dozen English footballers have played in a World Cup semi-final and fewer than 50 have scored a goal at a World Cup finals. I’m privileged to have done both. If it turns out that England don’t win the tournament then there are some obvious contenders who might, not least Brazil with their wealth of attacking talent. There is also Argentina and Portugal and those three have global icons who can win games and who may be playing in their last World Cup: Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. And that’s before we get to France and their striking options, including Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema. They have scored 65 international goals between them and there are another two players in their squad — Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann — who both have more than 40 goals each! I’m lucky to have played with or against some of the best footballers in the world, from Ronaldo to Messi and Neymar. What they can do at any given moment is, frankly, just silly. I’ve seen it up close. What I hope to see from England over the coming weeks is Gareth’s squad reaching their enormous potential in the biggest event in global sport. Having the World Cup in Qatar has caused controversy which everyone knows about. The decision to stage it there was made when I was a kid, a few weeks after I turned 18, by people who are mostly not involved in football any more. There has been plenty said about it, but I have two main observations. First, it’s obviously different to have a World Cup in winter, in the middle of the domestic season. As a Nottingham Forest player, it’s annoying that it came as we were gaining some momentum. But strange things happen all the time in football and as a player you adapt. Ask any player whether they want to be at this World Cup and the vast majority will say bring it on. Secondly, football is a global game and if you decide that the World Cup can’t be staged in the Middle East or in the Arab world because it is too hot, then you’re denying more than 400 million people in that region the opportunity to host the greatest event. It’s too hot in summer, so it’s in winter and everyone in Qatar will simply get on with it. IF THERE was a single moment during the 2018 World Cup in Russia that meant an enormous amount to me at the time — and not just in retrospect — then it was during the anthem before our quarter-final. We were playing against Sweden in Samara, and we won 2-0 to reach the semi-final for only the third time in England history after 1966 and 1990. But it’s not the match that was most special, it was that my mum, Kirsty, was there (above). She’s had to cope with clinical depression my whole life and has been hospitalised with it. I talk about this and my own struggles with mental health in a new documentary for All 4. Depression is a dark and lonely place. I sought help and got it from Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the 2018 World Cup. My mum was having a particularly rough time when she was in Russia to support me. On her bad days she couldn’t do a thing. During the anthem, I spotted her in the crowd. She’d found the strength and determination to get out of bed and be there for me. Seeing her gave me goosebumps and a memory I’ll keep for ever.