REPINO, Russia (AP) — As a youngster, when he used bikes for goalposts and played with kids much older than him at his housing complex, Dele Alli would go home and cry if he lost a game.
Those emotions haven’t really changed.
“I’m the same now,” the England midfielder said Saturday, “you feel like the world’s over when you lose.”
Alli has to pick himself up quickly. It’s only two days since England lost for the first time at this World Cup — 1-0 to Belgium — and three days until the team plays again, against Colombia in the round of 16.
But the older and more mature he gets, the more he is finding ways to channel this anger and frustration into something positive.
“You have to bounce back from it,” he said. “It’s always in your hands, so you recover and go again.”
And there was a positive from the loss to Belgium, despite it being a matter of fierce debate back in England this week as to whether the national team getting beaten can ever be a good thing.
The English are now in the quarter of the knockout-stage draw where there are none of the so-called heavyweights of international soccer.
Facing Colombia — potentially missing its star playmaker, James Rodriguez — and then either Sweden or Switzerland in the quarterfinals is, on paper at least, a kind route to the semifinals.
Then again, this is England, a nation that hasn’t won a knockout game at a major tournament since 2006 and that famously lost to tiny Iceland in a supposedly easy last-16 match at the European Championship in 2016.
It is why some flak came the way of England coach Gareth Southgate because he played a virtual reserve team against Belgium, knowing that finishing second in the group wasn’t such a bad result.
Critics argued that England is simply no longer good enough to pick and choose who it would prefer to play in future rounds at a World Cup. And also, had momentum been lost after back-to-back wins over Tunisia and Panama to open group play.
“No,” Alli said, emphatically. “Firstly we have to make it clear the whole squad is the ‘A team.’ We’re in this together.
“The manager made a decision and we all back him. We didn’t lose any momentum. We’re all fighting and raring to go.”
With the knockout stage comes added pressure on every game, something that England recently hasn’t been able to deal with. Temperament issues also follow the 22-year-old Alli around because of his occasionally fiery on-field reactions.
Over the last two years for Tottenham, he has been handed a retrospective ban for punching an opponent in the stomach during a Premier League game and been red-carded for a wild challenge against Gent in a Champions League game.
“I know myself. I’ll never change for anyone,” said Alli, who is often protected and defended by Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. “A lot of things, personally, I’d like to improve in my game, but I’ll not change in myself on the pitch.”
“Everyone’s upbringing is different. It shaped me into the player I am today. When I was younger I played with a lot of older kids in the parks … I wanted to show I wasn’t scared and wanted to prove myself. The same with Tottenham.”
Alli said he was fully fit after missing the 6-1 win over Panama because of a thigh injury and then being left out against Belgium. He is expected to return to the team against Colombia, whose center back — Davinson Sanchez — has been a teammate of Alli’s at Tottenham for the past year since joining from Ajax.
Sanchez will be directly up against another Tottenham player in Harry Kane, the leading scorer at the World Cup with five goals.
“I didn’t watch too much of him at Ajax, but he’s impressed me since he came in,” Alli said. “He’s strong, physical, good on the ball.
“We know how he plays, we know his strengths, and we’ll look to try and exploit his very few weaknesses.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80