Danger lurked throughout the 32-team draw for the World Cup but England avoided the toughest opposition as they were drawn, by Diego Maradona, in Group G alongside Belgium, Tunisia and the World Cup debutants Panama. The Hand of God plucked the ball containing England’s name from a pot during the draw staged inside Moscow’s State Kremlin Palace.
They will play their first game against Tunisia in Volgograd on 18 June, the fifth day of the tournament. They will then travel to Novgorod to face Panama on 24 June before the final group match against the top seeds Belgium in Kaliningrad on 28 June.
Southgate pointed to England’s premature exits from the last World Cup and Euro 2016 as reasons for limiting expectations. “When we have just come from two tournaments where Costa Rica knocked us out, and then Iceland, it would be folly for us not to be serious about our preparation and make sure our mentality is right,” he said. “But also not being fearful of what might happen is an important balance to find.”
There was no obvious group of death although neighbours Spain and Portugal were drawn together in Group B along with Morocco and Iran. Group D is also tougher than others, featuring Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria.
Southgate claimed a relatively late introduction to the tournament, coming five weeks after the final Premier League match, could also play into the hands of his young team.
“The interesting thing for us is starting later and what that might mean for us at the end of the season,” he said. “It could help. We’ve got to get that period of training and recovery and freshness right.”
The draw stirred fond memories for Southgate of playing for England against Tunisia at France 98, a match they won 2-0.
“Tunisia takes me back to Marseille,” the 47-year-old said, “one of the best days of my life, playing my first game in the World Cup finals for England, an incredible atmosphere and I remember the colour of it, the Beatles music playing before the game.
“It was a brilliant occasion so to be leading the country out into that same occasion, the first game of the World Cup, I am hugely proud.”
There could be a positive omen, too, in the Panama manager Hernán Darío Gómez having coached Colombia at France 98 when England beat them 2-0 and David Beckham scored a trademark free-kick from 30 yards.
The most hotly anticipated match in Group H will be England against Belgium, a game likely to feature a large number of Premier League players, from Kevin De Bruyne to Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, and they are coached by Roberto Martínez.
The former Everton manager said the match was likely to present a problem at home. “My daughter is English so that is the first battle I am going to have when I get back,” he said. “I don’t know who she will support. That’s the difficult question, she was born in England but I’m sure I can persuade her to support Belgium.”
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