Gareth Southgate optimistic England will return to action in September | Gareth Southgate

Gareth Southgate would worry about the squeeze on international football if its return were delayed any further into next season by the fallout from the Covid-19 crisis.

In a previous world, the England manager would have been preparing for his team’s opening Euro 2020 game against Croatia at Wembley on Sunday but the tournament has long been postponed until next summer and Southgate’s area of the game seemingly pushed below the domestic leagues in order of importance.

The priority has certainly been to resume and complete the club competitions across Europe before getting the national sides back into action.

Southgate is optimistic that international football will return in September, having at one stage been worried that it would not happen until after Christmas. But he dreads to think of the repercussions if even one of the autumn windows were to prove impossible.

The plan for England is to play two Nations League ties in each of the September, October and November international slots. If one could not happen, then a pair of Nations League triple-headers is the contingency under discussion – a scenario far from ideal for Southgate in terms of fixture congestion.

The Uefa executive committee meets next Wednesday to discuss dates for the final stages of this season’s Champions League and Europa League – which are set to be in August – but the calendar for the national teams will also be on the agenda.

“I am more optimistic now than I was probably six weeks ago in that it feels as though the combatting of the virus is advancing in a good direction,” Southgate said. “There was certainly a period when I didn’t think there was going to be anything before Christmas. But the Bundesliga set a good path to show what was possible and now it feels more acceptable for football to come back in our country.

Gareth Southgate: ‘You only have to lose one international window for it to become very complicated.’
Gareth Southgate: ‘You only have to lose one international window for it to become very complicated.’ Photograph: James Baylis – AMA/Getty Images

“The calendar is very tight and if we were to lose one month of international football there would be some difficult scenario planning for the different governing bodies to fit everything in. At the moment, all of that is achievable and having a winter World Cup [in 2022] might give breathing space for the calendar, ironically, to filter its way through.

“The Uefa meeting that I was in on was geared around [internationals breaks in] September, October, November going ahead. That is obviously complicated by the start of the domestic leagues [for next season], not only here but across Europe. There are still a lot of unknowns. You have got international travel in that mix.

“You only have to lose one international window for it to become very complicated. We are in a Nations League group with Iceland and Iceland still have Euro qualifying [play-offs] to play and, by March, we have got World Cup qualifiers so the knock-on impact of losing one more window would be quite significant. We plan for September but we don’t think that’s a given by any stretch of the imagination.”

Southgate expressed a measure of frustration at where the international game ranked in the pecking order. “We must be the only sport where internationals are perceived in some areas to be less important,” he said. “I don’t get that. In the last few months, I have seen a lot of interviews and players showing their caps as one of the most important things in their lives.

“I understand the league is hugely popular and massively tribal. You will get people saying: ‘Forget England, I just want my club to come back.’ But we are the only ones to bring 24 million to 30 million people together around an event and that has the opportunity to unite an at times divided landscape.”

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