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don’t make it about The Gamble
I don’t know what team can afford to rest players,” Óscar Tabárez told a room full of reporters in Samara last week, the day before Uruguay’s final World Cup group game against Russia. Tabárez’s team had already made it to the last 16 and rumours had spread there would be major changes to his starting XI.
In response he fell back on a familiar phrase. “We do not speculate,” Tabárez announced. It is a distinctly Uruguayan note of defiance, a reminder that this is the most fiercely competitive of footballing nations, notorious for its warrior spirit, what Jorge Valdano referred to in these pages as the “Garra Charrúa” culture, named after the native tribe which, rather than offering to negotiate, killed and ate their European invaders.
Resting players, going
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slow, soft‑pedalling a winnable game: Tabárez and Uruguay refused to contemplate this. Russia were duly dispatched 3-0, ignition for the subsequent defeat of Portugal in the last 16. France will provide powerful over-dog opposition on Friday. But Uruguay are ticking now, fired by the thrill of competition. This is a team where nobody sleeps until this tournament is done one way or another.
And so on to England and a backstory that has swirled just out of sight around the deliciously well‑matched last-16 tie against Colombia at the Spartak Stadium on Tuesday night. In
Gareth we trust. For now. Depending on how things turn out. But it is hard to avoid the sense of contrast here. England, it seems, do speculate at World Cups.
With Spain dumped out of the draw by Russia on Sunday afternoon Southgate’s decision not to field his most powerful team in the final Group G game has begun to look an ever more wildly polarised piece of tactical thinking.
So much reasoning in sport is reverse-engineered out of results, which are in turn decided on the tiniest details. History is written, in gloating 10-point headlines, by the winners.
But this is what Southgate is now facing. The danger is that the effects of a calculated gamble – and probably a wrong-headed one – will now be ramped up by subsequent results.
Win against Colombia and Southgate will have shuttled England towards near-certain
World Cup glory. Lose and England’s manager will be open to accusations of having tried, unsuccessfully, to juke the draw at a tournament and fallen short of the obligation to compete to the maximum in every game, another case in sport of an obvious strength – planning, thoroughness, “owning the situation” – becoming a flaw.
The comparison might be made with 1950, when England’s selection committee
left out Stanley Matthews against the amateurs of the USA in Belo Horizonte, saving their ace for tougher challenges in the later rounds, only to find themselves guilty of the kind of starchy British post-imperial arrogance to which only a
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slightly wooden Hollywood re-enactment can do justice.
With this in mind it is probably a good idea to pack this away now. Southgate was either right or wrong to make eight changes
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The dumb luck of being sunk by a defensive mistake on Tuesday night, or a fine performance from an opponent, should not change this.
And probably there was a slight mis-step here, albeit one made out of good intentions. Judging by Southgate’s obiter dicta at his post‑match press conference it seems England were broadly convinced that the choice for the last 16 would boil down to Senegal and Colombia. Colombia are ranked 16th in the world, Senegal 27th. Strong opponents both: better to face either one with a fresher first XI.
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