With a blue ocean behind him framed by palm trees, and Sugarloaf Mountain to his left, the first thought that sprang to mind for Adam Lallana was not that occasion three years ago when he was playing away at Hartlepool in February in a goalless draw. An English reporter present only reminded him to make the point that the man from Southampton has come a long way since those days in League One.
In fact, the setting for England’s training camp here, officially opened yesterday, was enough to impress even the most stellar names in the squad. From the training pitches, you can see the Christ the Redeemer statue perched on the Corcovado mountain overlooking the city. Container ships move across the bay at a glacial pace and the sense of space and scale – from the mountains to the ocean – is powerful.
“I was saying to one of the lads when we went out there that I can’t think of many better places to train and prepare for a World Cup,” Lallana said. “It’s exciting and, yeah, it’s hot, but it’s something we’ve been getting used to. Training in these conditions and the scenery there, the backdrop – it’s lovely.”
Many of the players, although not Lallana, were here last June, preparing for the friendly against Brazil at the Maracana, but yesterday the sunshine was that bit more brilliant and the prospect of their first World Cup game just five days away added a frisson of excitement. Of course, this being England, it could all go horribly wrong but at least they have the small consolation of having one of the best bases of any team, for as long as the adventure lasts.
The Urca military base is of a significant enough distance from England’s hotel further down the shoreline that they require a police escort to cut through the Rio morning traffic. They arrived yesterday in full pomp, with assorted accompanying vehicles and sirens and flashing lights, and a few blank stares from the young army recruits who live at the base, one of the oldest settlements in the city.
The England bus had already left the squad’s Royal Tulip hotel when they realised that they had embarked minus the second-youngest member of the playing squad, Ross Barkley, who had to dash out of the hotel and board while the bus stopped in the street.
As the players walked out on to the training pitches one of the locals, accompanied by children playing drums, sang Queen’s “We are the champions” which was a nice touch but he obviously has not seen England play at a major tournament for the last four decades. In other circumstances this might have been the prelude to embarrassed laughter among the players but they were too busy admiring the view.
The Football Association has invited 370 guests from local organisations, including 20 local kids from the Bola Pra Frente samba band, whose music moved Roy Hodgson to dance last time England were in Rio. No such effect this time upon the England manager, taking training in sunglasses and a white baseball cap, and preoccupied with placing the training mannequins correctly.
“It’s a great set-up,” Jack Wilshere said. “We have a great little marquee which is nice. When players are training the other resting players can watch. It is a good pitch and it’s got good views. It’s not really kicked in yet that the World Cup is starting. It will when the first game gets going. When you drive through the streets you see all the big screens being put up. It’s just around the corner, you can tell that and it will be nice when it gets started.”
Wilshere and Lallana were two of the players selected to take part in an FA trip to the Rocinha favela yesterday afternoon. The England players’ foundation has donated what was described by the FA as “a significant five-figure sum” to help rebuild the facilities there. These are the kind of events that the FA hopes will make England good tourists in the eyes of their hosts, although the days when they were done with one eye on a World Cup finals bid of their own are long gone.
Steven Gerrard finished training early with a tightness in his groin. Wilshere spent some of the session on a pitch-side exercise bike in order, he said, to loosen up from the flight from Miami. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain embarked on a running exercise, moving freely, and there are hopes he could be ready for the Uruguay game. Tomorrow the players will begin their courses of malaria pills before they travel to the Amazon city of Manaus on Thursday in preparation for Saturday’s game there.
“Three years ago I was playing in League One so just to be here at a World Cup is a massive achievement and anything else is a bonus,” said Lallana, in response to a question as to whether his place in the team is less certain after the two warm-up games. Although, of course, England expect a lot more than just coming along for the ride.