Inside England’s training camp as players do yoga, play Xbox and beat journalists at darts

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AL WAKRAH — Training is going to be sweltering – that was the main takeaway from day one of England’s training camp. When the players stepped out onto the Al Wakrah training complex pitch, which will be their base for the duration of this World Cup, for the first time on Wednesday the thermometer was still tipping 30C, even though it was 4.30pm in the afternoon and the sun was setting in the background.

The training stadium, belonging to Qatar Stars League side Al Wakrah, is open and affords barely any shade. They’ll need plenty of water. And sun cream.

A large portion of the squad went for sleeveless tank tops as opposed to the usual training gear to provide as much relief as possible, including Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Harry Maguire (never had Maguire down as the tank-top type).

At the beginning, the team and staff collected in a huddle and Steve Holland, England’s assistant manager, gave a speech to the players about what it would mean to go far at this tournament. The first winter World Cup and first to be hosted by an Arab nation will be different for a lot of reasons and Holland told the group that they had 28 sessions to prepare for the first game of Euro 2020 but only a handful out here.

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“It’s going to take a lot,” James Maddison said later. “There are so many nations who are strong. We all know that, we are all on the same page and we are all excited.

“It’s obviously different but it’s new to everyone. We’re not actually sure how it’s going to fare because you don’t know. It’s the first time there’s been a mid-season World Cup like this.

England players don tank tops because of the heat in Qatar (Photo: Getty)

“But the good thing is a lot of the lads have been playing and are in good form, getting regular minutes at club football so it’s not exactly like they’re going to need a lot of time to get up to speed.

“The majority of the lads play in Europe as well, where the games are every three to four days, so I don’t think it’s going to be a fitness problem or anything like that.

“It’s just probably the preparation is not as dragged out over three to four weeks. You’re straight in and it’s probably more important that you hit the ground running because there is not as much time to prepare.”

After Holland’s address they hit the ground with more like a light jog, plus some stretching and mobilising, at one point the Islamic Call to Prayer loudly ringing out.

Many of England’s training sessions will be hidden from view (Photo: PA)

All 26 of the squad were able to take part in the first session, including Manchester City pair Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips, who are both recovering from injuries (Phillips shoulder and Walker from groin surgery) and are expected to miss the first game, but play a part later in the group stage.

The warmup had actually started away from the television cameras with a spot of yoga outside in a courtyard, where mats were scattered between palm trees.

The players had the warmest (literally) welcome on landing in Doha, arriving at their nearby Souq Al Wakrah Hotel around 8pm on Tuesday night, each player handed a roses when they entered the lobby.

England manager Gareth Southgate, meanwhile, is protecting his training ground secrets closely, with World Cup-branded material stretched all the way around the perimeter fencing to ensure no spies can peer through the gaps to see if he plays four or five at the back in training. State-of-the-art security cameras have been placed around the outer fence and there’s airport-style security for anyone wishing to enter.

Covid masks are being worn as a precaution around the England camp (Photo: Reuters)

Within the grounds of England’s training camp, the vast media centre, constructed inside the Qatar Football Association’s official futsal hall, contains pool tables, table football, Xboxes, and a giant foot-darts board, although Southgate will be relieved that the media v players competition, where one player faces a member of the press each day, will be contested on the traditional darts board on the other side of the hall, to avoid any of his players turning an ankle. Maddison won day one against a Sky Sports News reporter whose first dart bounced out of the board.

Maddison said the first day had a “preseason feel” to it, particularly due to the heat. And the atmosphere among the squad as a whole was described to i as “chilled”.

While the rest of the country has had Covid rules relaxed, it’s mandated for players to be checked regularly and anyone testing positive must self-isolate for five days, then wear a mask for the next five, which would badly affect a player. So FFP2 masks have been reintroduced for anyone meeting them and a 3m distance is maintained where possible to keep the squad and staff in a bubble.

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