Theo Walcott was being brutally honest when he described his first stroll down Copacabana beach.
Watching children playing a version of volleyball with feet this week, he said that some of the skills, like returning the ball with a shoulder, were ones that even he had not yet mastered.
England face Brazil on Sunday at the rebuilt Maracana and although the visitors come with a sense of humility, they also know that there is no point being overawed. Though Walcott was impressed by the ability of the locals – who could fail to be? – he was also part of a team that beat Brazil 2-1 at Wembley in February. “I wouldn’t say we are lagging behind [in terms of technique], not at all,” he said. “But we will be tested on Sunday.”
There were low clouds over Rio and an intermittent drizzle that reminded the England players of home. But if there was one overwhelming memory to take from a visit to a Football Association-funded project, it was that the team have to make sure they are back here come next summer.
From their hotel on the beach in Copacabana, manager Roy Hodgson and his players are already getting a flavour of what a World Cup here would mean. Those with a sea view will be able to see the goalposts on the beach, and tomorrow they will play at one of the most famous football stadiums in the world. For the whole team, even those with Champions League and Premier League winners’ medals, a World Cup here would, at the very least, represent one of their career highlights.
“It is going to be spectacular to just be out here and to experience different parts of Brazil,” Walcott said. “Hopefully we can come out here again and show our stuff on the pitch. First of all we have to do the job [tomorrow]. As soon as you come here you realise just what a football place it is.”
The FA won some friends yesterday with a visit to the Bola Pra Frente project to educate six-to-24-year-olds in a deprived area of Guadeloupe in northern Rio. The governing body had made a donation towards the facility, which is also funded by Sport Relief and was visited yesterday by Joe Hart, Walcott, Jermain Defoe, Jack Rodwell, Hodgson, Gary Neville and a few more in the FA entourage.
It was a good morning that finished with Hodgson and FA chairman David Bernstein joining in a musical performance by local children and dancing – well, shuffling from side-to-side – while Hart played the drums and Neville filmed the whole thing on his phone. Earlier the players had taken part in training drills with the children on the football pitch and joined them for lessons in their classrooms.
It was an area of Rio far removed from what will be the colourful, exciting epicentre of the World Cup finals in a year’s time, with largely bleak prospects for the younger generation. Many of them are so poor that they do not have their own astro football trainers – the bright Nike and Adidas boots they wore belong to the project and have to be handed back every day. Ronaldo – the original, and 2002 World Cup winner – grew up not too far away.
The England players often prove themselves good sports at this kind of thing, and it is obvious that the likes of Hart and Walcott are naturals when it comes to engaging with young people and taking an interest in them. The PR work was right on the money, but unfortunately the performance of the team is never too far away from people’s thoughts.
Tomorrow night will be a test for Hodgson, not least because he has so few players. Danny Welbeck is still not fit and unlikely to play much of a part in the game. That leaves Hodgson with very few options in attack. He could play Walcott ahead of Wayne Rooney or he could opt to put the Arsenal man on the wing in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation with Phil Jones given the job of protecting the back four as a defensive midfielder.
“Going forward we have some tough qualifying matches but we want to be here next year, no doubt about it,” Walcott said. “It wouldn’t be right if we weren’t here. We all know our job and that we need to do it now. The performance has to be slightly better but I didn’t think it was the end of the world the other day against Ireland.
“Do we suffer from a lack of players? I’m not sure. That is one for the manager to answer – we have had some guys getting injured which is a shame. The squad is very tight because I don’t think the manager wants people to travel all this way and not play. You get injuries in tournaments as well.”
The attitude among the England players, ahead of this, the first of the two remaining friendlies before their last four World Cup qualifiers, is that they cannot bring themselves to contemplate the prospect of not going to Brazil next summer.
It may well turn out that, refreshed from the summer and relatively free of injuries at the start of next season, they stroll through the remaining games – at home to Moldova, Ukraine away, then home to Montenegro and Poland – but there has been precious little to reassure anyone that will be the case.
Asked about Gary Lineker’s observation that England are going “back to the Dark Ages” tactically, the players were awkward. Defoe said: “He’s a legend, he’s a Spurs man. I respect Gary Lineker as a forward and obviously everyone has their opinion, that’s life. If that’s going to hurt you then you’re a weak person. As a group we stick together and try to win football matches.”
Defoe said that a recent discussion among the players on the coach had centred on the defeat to Germany at the last World Cup finals and how they felt unlucky to be denied Frank Lampard’s legitimate goal. “We should have gone in 2-2 at half-time and I remember the first 10 to 15 minutes of the second half and as a team we played some good stuff.”
It is reassuring to know that they do think about these things, and four days in Rio will leave them in no doubt they cannot afford to miss out next summer.