There was a wonderful moment on England’s first day in Rio de Janeiro last week when the players were taken into Rochina, the largest favela in the country, with its dwellings rising into the hills like row upon row of broken teeth, and the locals put on a session of capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines acrobatics and music.
Historically, it is the sort of event England’s players have been guilty in the past of treating as a pain. Yet here were Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck immersing themselves in the moment, including one-armed handstands and various other dance moves that would probably have given Roy Hodgson kittens with the World Cup a few days away.
The two forwards could be found on Monday at England’s training base in Urca going over the bittersweet emotions of the past week and it is fair to say Sturridge did the vast majority of the talking. At one point, a long, impassioned speech about how much this tournament meant to him was so stirring, and such a break from the norm, it finished with one member of the press corps breaking into applause.
Then there were the lighter moments, including his account of what it was like to score against Italy in Manaus on Saturday. Sturridge recalled how his first thought was that it was going to be ruled out for offside. Then his voice went up a few octaves in mock indignation about what happened next. “When I looked over to the bench all I could see were people gathering around someone on the floor. I was caught up in the moment and it was all a bit of a blur. But I was thinking: ‘What’s going on here?’ Then I saw Gary Lewin was down, and I was like: ‘He’s stolen my moment! I’m trying to do my thing and he’s lying down on the floor injured!’”
Sturridge, to make absolutely certain, was not being totally serious and finished that little passage by making sure to send his wishes to England’s physiotherapist, now recovering from a fractured and dislocated ankle. It was a glimpse, however, into Sturridge’s personality that he was willing to offer these kinds of anecdotes, at a time when the Football Association’s media department has been deliberately briefing the players to make every interview a risk-free zone.
The general instruction is to say little, and see even less. Yet Sturridge is plainly his own man – “I say what I think,” he points out, away from the television cameras – and it was an accomplished performance from a player who, by his own admission, is far more approachable as a Liverpool employee than he ever was at Chelsea. The goals seem to have had a therapeutic effect. “I’m a lot calmer,” he says.
He was particularly interesting – and so animated at one point it felt like he was on the verge of thumping the table – when the subject turned to Gus Poyet’s comments that Uruguay will resort to the dark arts of the sport in São Paulo on Thursday, operating by the old South American philosophy that anything goes.
“I’m going to do anything in my power to win this game, just like they are prepared to do anything,” Sturridge responded. “I’m prepared to do anything, and I’m talking anything.”
The way he accentuated that final “anything” brought some knowing smiles from his audience. “I’m being serious,” he continued. “I’m prepared to do anything to win this game. It’s do or die. It’s a World Cup. It means everything. Do we want to go home? No, we don’t want to go home. I want to win this World Cup. I’d be gutted to go home early. I’d be devastated. So I’m being totally honest here. I’m not saying I’m going to dive or do anything that’s not within the laws of the game, but I will do anything to help get a result.”
So, hypothetically, would that mean deliberately going down, in the way Michael Owen did against Argentina in 1998, if he felt the merest contact in the penalty area? It sounded like that was what he was getting at. And we all know Luis Suárez would. “Within the rules of the game, I’ll do anything, just like every Uruguayan player will,” Sturridge reiterated. “They want to go through. We want to go through. I will stay on my feet. I will never dive on purpose. I’m not going to do a handball to stop a goal going in, because it’s not in my nature. We’re an honest country and we go about our business in an honest way. We don’t like to break the rules. We don’t like to cheat to win. We want to play in an honest way. But I will do absolutely anything.”
The only subject Sturridge really did not want to discuss was Suárez, which will possibly enhance the theory – and there are people at Liverpool who will acknowledge it more as a fact, than theory – that the two are not close, despite their phenomenal success as the outstanding strike partnership in the Premier League.
For the past few weeks, the other Liverpool players in England’s squad have talked about exchanging texts with Suárez before the tournament began, including various injury updates from the Uruguayan. Not Sturridge. “It doesn’t happen at home, so it wouldn’t happen when I’m here,” makes quite a revealing line.
At Liverpool, the two strikers accumulated 52 league goals last season. Yet Sturridge swerves at least half a dozen routine questions about Suárez before it reaches the point when he is asked whether this is another of the FA’s guidelines. “He’s a world-class player, but we’re facing Uruguay, not just Luis,” he explains. “They also have Cavani, Forlán, who’s a legend in Uruguay, and other players who are very technically gifted. We’re worrying about them as a team. If they’d won their last game against Costa Rica there wouldn’t have been such an obsession about Luis being fit. But they lost, so people are saying: ‘Oh, Luis wasn’t playing, that’s the reason.’ Maybe if he had played, they would still have lost.”
He is more expansive when it comes to some of the players who have excelled so far in this tournament. “I’m surprised how open it’s been. It’s a great World Cup, with so many goals and chances. I enjoyed watching the Holland-Spain game. I love Robben as a footballer, he’s the one who’s excited me the most. Show Robben on his left foot, he’ll go on his right foot down the line. It’s that unpredictability. These days the best players – Luis, Neymar, Messi, Robben – are so unpredictable.”
Sitting directly to his left, Welbeck has just been informed that Rio Ferdinand, his former team-mate at Manchester United, commented during the Italy game that he needed to take more risks. Sturridge believes his friend can be unfairly singled out sometimes. “I’ve grown up with Welbz and I think he’s unbelievably talented. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves. We’ve been in similar situations, both wanting to play centrally but being on the wing. Mentally, it plays with you sometimes. You’re not clear-minded about how to perform.”
The difference is that Sturridge has shown he is too good to be put out wide. “I was watching Thierry Henry on television the other day and he told the story about something Nicolas Anelka had said to him, that you have to hit the target, make the keeper do his job.” That, he says, is where England must improve against Uruguay. “It’s just a little thing, but so true.”