French public are England fans now, says Phil Neville before USA semi-final
Phil Neville handled his first diplomatic crisis with aplomb on Sunday, swiftly gaining the moral high ground amid revelations that two brass-necked members of the United States staff had infiltrated the Lionesses’ team base.
The Football Association may have been unamused by the reconnaissance mission involving the US checking out the luxury Fourvière hotel with a view to moving in before the World Cup final but England’s manager succeeded in cloaking his firm disapproval in light-hearted disdain.
After initially laughing it off, Neville said the whole manoeuvre was extremely “un-British”, a breach of etiquette and an event he would never have countenanced. “It’s not something I would allow our organisation to do,” he stated.
Neville then declared that the French had fallen in love with his England team and would be supporting them in force here in Lyon during Tuesday night’s semi-final.
“We’re the French second team now,” he said. “Now that their team are out they’re supporting us, so we’ll have the crowd on our side. The French people have got behind the story of our football. We are the team the French public want to win. The French support has been incredible.”
That statement was prompted by a question about whether the biggest game of his fledgling managerial career – and a potential watershed for the growth of women’s football in England – might tempt him to compromise on his pass-and-move philosophy. After all, the former US goalkeeper Hope Solo had told Observer readers that the way to beat her old team is to go direct.
“No, my style’s non-negotiable, I’m afraid, I’m a bit stubborn,” said England’s manager with a smile as he reiterated one of his favourite phrases. “We’re not going to change our style. We believe it’s the best way to get success. The USA is the best team in the world, without a shadow of a doubt. Their record and their coach’s record are phenomenal. But never worry about the opposition. I want to concentrate on us. Our strengths, our values, our style of play. The way we want to play is the most important thing. Our aim is to go out and play a World Cup semi-final with the freedom, expression and smiles. I want us to keep the ball and keep it moving.”
Neville proved similarly sure-footed when the conversation turned to Megan Rapinoe, the US’s spiky social justice advocate and arch critic of Donald Trump who scored twice against France in her side’s 2-1 quarter-final win and is now preparing to challenge England’s imperious right-sided pairing of Lucy Bronze and Nikita Parris.
“I admire people that have personality and character, who have strong values and stand up for what they believe in,” said Neville. “I admire her fight for equality and diversity. Yes, I admire Megan Rapinoe. Me personally, I’d never get involved in any political issue. From my point of view, sometimes it’s better to stay in your lane. I don’t like it when politicians get involved in football. But we do have a platform to influence people.”
When he was asked about the match-up between Bronze and Rapinoe he recalled how well England’s versatile Rachel Daly had played at right-back when England drew with the US in March.
“I do believe Lucy’s the best player in the world. She’s unique in almost everything she does,” he said. “But Lucy can step into midfield so I’ve got a big decision to make. It might be Rachel Daly at right-back. She did really well against Rapinoe [in the SheBelieves Cup]. Rachel was amazing.”
England’s coach also remembered when he went to gather a loose ball on the touchline that day. “Rapinoe went to catch the ball and her studs went right through my Apple watch,” said Neville. “She didn’t say sorry. She’s a real competitor.”
He believes his players have developed a similar mindset. “Elite sport is about winning,” he said. “No one cares about the silver or the bronze medal. My players now want to win the World Cup.”