On the plane into Rio de Janeiro Roy Hodgson was indulging in some light reading in the form of HHhH, Laurent Binet’s acclaimed novel based around Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich during the Second World War.
Leighton Baines had a Hubert Selby Jr book in his bag and a guitar in the haul. Baines, one of the more engaging members of the squad, was in the hotel in Miami last week when he realised Morrissey was staying in the same place. “I really had to gee myself up just to say hello,” he said. “He wished us good luck.”
Hodgson and his players always said it was going to be when they landed in Brazil that the excitement really began – their bus was emblazoned with the message: “The dream of one team, the heartbeat of millions” – and now the serious work begins. Over the next couple of days the analysis starts of Italy. The Football Association’s 72-strong workforce out here (requiring two buses of their own) includes three video technicians, with Gary Neville in charge of taking the players through their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. As Phil Jagielka put it: “It’s pretty much like watching Monday Night Football on Sky, only with more of a personal touch and he can’t tell you off.”
Hodgson and his players will spend four days getting used to their new base, including a visit on Monday to Rochina, the largest favela in Brazil, before leaving on Thursday for Manaus. Italy’s players have been preparing by training in a sauna. England’s decamped to Miami and Jordan Henderson’s shirt was so drenched with sweat after the Honduras match it needed a member of the backroom staff to help him peel it off.
The temperature in Manaus peaked at around 91 degrees fahrenheit, with 67% humidity, on Sunday and it was interesting hearing the thoughts of Roger Espinoza, the Honduras player, after the previous day’s game. “I think it will be a big factor,” the Wigan Athletic player he said. “English players are not used to it. Where I live in Manchester, the sun comes out sometimes but it’s an artificial sun. We come to the States in pre-season and you can tell how tough it is for the English players. Not many places will be as hot [as Miami] in Brazil, apart from Manaus. That is very, very hot.”
The strange thing, perhaps, is that Italy’s squad do not fly to Manaus until Friday, giving them only a day to acclimatise before the game at Arena da Amazônia. Too much can be read into the fact Italy have not won any of their last seven internationals, stretching back to last September, but it is a strange way to go into the tournament whereas England have arrived in pretty good shape. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was still wearing a knee brace but Hodgson was “sure” the player would not have to be sent home and the only other casualty from Miami was the assistant manager, Ray Lewington, whose knee “locked” in the night because of an old cartilage problem, requiring a minor operation to clean out the joint and meaning he boarded the flight on crutches.
Hodgson revealed he had intended to play Raheem Sterling directly behind Daniel Sturridge, rather than on the left, in the Honduras game had the teenager not been suspended because of his red card in the previous match against Ecuador. That would have meant Rooney starting on the left again and it is tempting to wonder whether Hodgson will be emboldened enough to find a place in his team for Sterling. The England manager is certainly talking adventurously. “We have been on the front foot in every game,” he said. “We don’t know what a back foot looks like.”
The key is whether Sterling continues to distinguish himself in training as he did in Miami. “He was on fire,” Glen Johnson said. “He looks like he has been around the squad for years.”If that carries on at the Urca training camp, there is still time to convince Hodgson that the team would be more dynamic with Sterling than, say, Danny Welbeck.
Sterling’s Liverpool team-mate, Glen Johnson, believes the winger, with only 208 minutes of international football behind him, might also bring an element of surprise. “It would be ideal if people didn’t know what he is capable of and underestimate him. That would definitely work in our favour.” Equally Italy will have done their own homework and, lest it be forgotten, Welbeck is one of Hodgson’s favourites. All that can really be said is that, if this is the only real selection issue, Hodgson is entitled to think he has a reasonably settled team. For all that Ross Barkley has impressed in Miami, all the indications are that he will be on the bench.
More than anything England have to pay attention to what Espinoza says about the heat and humidity. “If they keep the ball like they did against us, they will not get tired,” he said. “They’re young guys and that will help. But it will be dangerous for them if they don’t keep the ball and have to chase it because it is going to be hot.”
When England played Italy in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 there was an infamous statistic that showed their most successful pass was the long punt from the goalkeeper, Joe Hart, up to Andy Carroll, a 60th-minute substitute. That came off 15 times. England’s possession was 25%, managing 320 passes compared with Italy’s 815. Andrea Pirlo put together more alone than the entire midfield quartet of Steven Gerrard, James Milner, Scott Parker and Ashley Young. “That was two years ago,” Hart now says. “We’ve moved forward with the players we’ve got now. We are working on our build-up play every single day. We understand the conditions out there. It’s going to be easier with the ball at our feet rather than chasing around. We’ve got the players to do that.”