DOHA, Qatar -- A card game that relies on deception is strengthening the bond among England’s players ahead of their match against Senegal in the round of 16 at the World Cup.
Werewolf, a game of roleplay and deduction, has become a popular pastime for the squad between matches in Qatar.
“It’s about being the best liar,” England midfielder Declan Rice said. “The villagers have got to snuff out the wolves and the wolves have got to lie and tell everyone why they are not a wolf. There is a lot of teamwork, ganging up.”
Whatever England is doing at its base in Al Wakrah, it’s working so far.
The team plays Senegal on Sunday after topping Group B and tying Spain as leading scorers in the tournament with nine goals. No other team picked up more than the seven points England recorded on its way to the knockout round and it is only one of three still undefeated.
Yet the message from coach Gareth Southgate and captain Harry Kane this week has been about maintaining focus and standards.
Belgium and Germany were high-profile departures from the group stage, while defending champion France, along with Argentina, Spain, Brazil and Portugal, have all been on the wrong end of upsets.
And to think England’s 0-0 draw with the United States was considered enough of a shock that it prompted loud jeers from the fans.
“I think it’s always difficult when you see big teams or big players in teams that don’t have the success that you want or don’t live up to the expectation of a nation or where they see themselves,” England defender John Stones said. “We don’t ever want to fall into that category. I think that is great motivation for us as a reminder — you never want to take anything for granted or who you are playing against.”
England may be considered a major soccer nation, but its only tournament success came when it hosted and won the World Cup in 1966. The years since have been pitted with disappointment and underachievement.
There has been an upturn under Southgate, who led the team to the semifinals of the World Cup in Russia in 2018 and to the final of last year’s European Championship, losing to Italy on penalties.
The bond he has developed among the players is seen as a key factor in England's improvement.
Southgate is also meticulous about his planning, from psychological help to deal with the pressure of taking penalties to even the most minor details. At a team meeting this week, players were reminded about leaving their socks out the “right way” for the equipment manager to collect after training.
“We get on each other for things like that because we have created those standards,” Stones said. “If you start getting sloppy with the little things, the bigger things start to get sloppy very easily. Any 1% or 2% of things that we can do to get better … obviously those are small things, but they matter to us.”
So there should be no danger of England taking Senegal lightly.
The African Cup of Nations champions finished second in Group A behind the Netherlands. That was despite the pre-tournament disappointment of losing striker Sadio Mane because of an injury.
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse was unable to attend a news conference Saturday because of illness and also missed team training on Friday. But he is planning to be at the match on Sunday at Al Bayt Stadium.
“He’s been sick for a couple of days now and he let us take charge of training yesterday with his instructions,” Senegal assistant coach Regis Bogaert said Saturday. “Hopefully tomorrow he will be able to be on the bench. We are sure that at 10 p.m. he will be there with the team, for sure.”
In 2002, Senegal beat defending champion France at the World Cup, with Cisse the captain of that team.
There have been more surprises involving African teams at this tournament.
“We’ve seen Cameroon can beat Brazil and Tunisia can beat France so we know Senegal can beat England," Bogaert said. "That’s what we’re aiming for. That’s an important message.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports