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Kevin Kilbane: Oh God, whisper it ... but it really could be coming home for England

My Doha experience so far exists in a tiny bubble staying in the same hotel as the Brazil squad

I was 13 years old when Kevin Sheedy equalised against England in Caligari at the 1990 World Cup. The goal is seared into my psyche.

Salem Al-Dawsari’s thunderbolt and somersaulting celebration at the Lusail stadium will be the Sheedy moment for Saudi Arabia’s children.

At half-time Argentina could have led 4-0, as all three Gulf states were staring down the barrel of early elimination from the first tournament held on the Arabian Peninsula. That is why this seismic victory will alter how the entire region views themselves within football’s hierarchy.

Lionel Messi was harassed and dragged down as the Saudis performed like a finely-tuned club side, taking everything away from Messi and the anonymous Ángel di Maria, outworking the South Americans to a man.


The result enhances the relevance of the football at Qatar 2022. It also emphasises the all-consuming power of a World Cup.

Put it another way, imagine we toppled Diego Maradona’s Argentina at USA ‘94. The bonfires would be lit!

I am billeted at the Brazilian team hotel so, for now, my Doha experience largely exists inside a tiny bubble. Actually, it is more like a hotel halved in two, as there’s a 100-strong security cordon surrounding Neymar and the lads.

I cannot wait to see Brazil face Serbia on Thursday, and to have a chance to compare them to England, who were so impressive in their 6-2 destruction of Iran. Gareth Southgate has erased the growing opinion of him being an ultra-conservative coach. Me included.

Same goes for the outstanding Harry Maguire, as this England team and the Manchester United defender can now be described as experts when it comes to peaking at major tournaments. God, it really could be coming home.

Steady now, the inevitable burst of jingoism might still soften the Three Lions’ cough. I need to track down my former BBC colleagues because I distinctly remember after England beat Panama 6-1 in the second match at Russia in 2018, Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker, Jermaine Jenas and Dion Dublin were already dreaming of 1966 revisited. They were almost singing the song.

Perhaps, 13 World Cup collapses later, the need for humility has seeped into England’s collective psyche. I’ll provide an update as soon as possible!

I can’t complain about life with TSN – the Canadian sports network – as we are staying in the lap of luxury, alongside a privileged minority, which clouds my first impressions of the Middle East.

After the quarter-finals, when most foreigners have gone home, I can maybe then pass some sort of lived judgment about this country of uber-wealthy, and the servants we encounter at every turn.

And do I mean every turn. First thing I did on arrival was explore the Metro system and it was jarring to see African and South Asian helpers every 10 metres guiding my path.

Fans and media just follow the giant rubber index fingers, but stall for a few seconds and it becomes apparent that these people are working 12 hour shifts with barely any food or water.

But, honestly, I want to focus on the football, because I lack any perspective at the moment. Try to imagine the cultural shock for an oil-rich Qatari landing in Preston, where I grew up, or spending a winter on Achill Island, where my Dad began life.

Mayo for Sam. Messi for Saudi 2030.

It is easy to digress at this World Cup, easy to get angry at the duplicitous nature of the “Welcome World” slogan, far too easy to forget about the football.

Well, it was until Mason Mount’s energetic performance against Iran that allowed teenager Jude Bellingham to look like a throwback to the elegant, marauding midfielders I played against in the 1990s.

Raheem Sterling’s goal says it all about this reborn English side; Bellingham bursting forward, laying the ball wide for Harry Kane to cleverly stall before sending a gorgeous ball into the box.

The knives had been out for Southgate but, to his enormous credit, the Nations League results this year were a mirage. This is not the ultra-conservative England that a lesser Italian side outfoxed in the Euro 2021 final.

Bellingham’s arrival and the maturing Saka see to that. I still believe England’s best attackers, Phil Foden and Trent Alexander-Arnold, are on the bench. Southgate does not fancy Alexander-Arnold, but Foden will make important cameos, as will Grealish and Rashford.

Oh God, it really could be coming home.

Maguire’s flawless defensive showing (didn’t think I’d write that this year) and his aerial threat in Iran’s box, helped create Saka’s brilliant first goal.

Southgate staked his reputation on him coming good, not unlike Mick McCarthy going all-in on Jason McAteer after he scored against the Dutch in Amsterdam 21 years ago. Trigger wasn’t getting a look in at Blackburn but Mick’s loyalty kept his spirits high, and the pay-off shook the foundations of Lansdowne Road.

Part of me wants to ignore Gianni Infantino’s despicable comments about “feeling disabled”. Another part of me wants to unload on the Fifa president. But anger is not the answer, even if Infantino has managed to instigate a horrendous bout of race-baiting in and around this World Cup, all to appease his Qatari masters.

Millions around the world continue to feel the tremors of European colonialism, so they will drink Infantino’s Kool-Aid, but I hope enough people see that he is imitating all these modern-day Strong Men. We, in Canada, lived through America’s shame between 2016 and 2020.

Infantino’s grotesque speech, to my mind, has enhanced the issues Fifa and the Qataris wanted to suppress. The clash of cultures will not abate.

Imagine if Harry Kane, Gareth Bale and Virgil van Dijk steeled themselves for a greater good beyond football by swallowing yellow cards for wearing the One Love armband? By back-tracking, these iconic captains have made it just as intimidating for a gay professional footballer to come out of the closet today as it was in the 1990s.

A minuscule sacrifice would have created an unforgettable sporting image, but the moment has passed. Harry, Gareth and Virgil chose to “shut up and dribble”. And that’s exactly what Fifa’s unashamed PR machine counted upon. That’s exactly what the Qatar World Cup’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy counted upon too.

That’s the legacy of this World Cup, and we haven’t even seen the Brazilians play.