The LA Galaxy's captain played in three World Cups for the Three Lions — 2002, 2006 and 2010 — and relishes his memories, even if there are “not too many, because we always lost.”
England went out in the quarterfinals in 2002 (vs. champion Brazil) and 2006 (vs. Portugal), then lost to in the Round of 16 (against Germany) in 2010, and Cole knows he's most fortunate to have had such a run.
“As a young kid, you never dream of getting one cap or making it as a professional footballer, let alone representing your country at a World Cup," Cole told MLSsoccer.com. “[I've got] great memories, great memories.”
He thinks the young squad former England teammate Gareth Southgate has put together can accomplish something nice in Russia this summer, as long as they're unified.
“It looks good on paper, you know,” he said. “But when you're playing in World Cups and European Championships, it's different. I hope they've got that mentality to stick together, and when the luck's not going their way, they stick together. With the quality they have, they have a good chance.”
England, which figures to battle Belgium for the top spot in Group G, opens June 18 against Tunisia in Volgograd, then takes on Panama on June 24 in Nizhny Novgorod and faces the Red Devils, the group's top seed, June 28 in Kaliningrad. There's a clear path to the quarterfinals, where Germany or Brazil — the former with a first-place finish, the latter if second — likely awaits.
The squad has a veteran presence, with defenders Gary Cahill and Phil Jones, midfielder Jordan Henderson, and forwards Danny Welback and Raheem Sterling headed to their second World Cups, but it's mostly a younger group, with 13 of 23 players 25 or younger. And injury deprived England of 23-year-old midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was part of the 2014 team, and 21-year-old defender Joe Gomez, both from Liverpool. Fifteen players have European Championship experience, but eight had fewer than 10 caps when the roster was announced.
Tottenham forward Harry Kane, 24, is the biggest name in the group, which also features 22-year-old Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli and 20-year-old Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford. The youngest player is 19-year-old Liverpool right back Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Cole has his favorites.
“For me, Rashford, I think,” he said. “For a young kid, he's got a cool head on his shoulders. He can do everything. Kane's on fire at the moment. Dele Alli's playing well. I think they've got the players and the kind of characters to go far, but you're going to need a little bit of luck as well if you're playing against Germany.”
Cole started all 14 World Cup games England played in Japan, Germany and South Africa, going the distance in 12 of them. He has fond recollections of a 1-0 victory over Argentina in the second Group F game in 2002, a result that was critical in the Three Lions' advancement to the knockout stage.
“I have good and bad memories [from the World Cups],” he said. “I've always tried to give my heart for England, and the Argentina game was out and out my favorite. The atmosphere, and David Beckham [converting a penalty kick at the end of the first half]. I figure that was my favorite game to play in.”
Not among his favorites was the 1-1 draw with the U.S. in a 2010 Group C opener. Steven Gerrard fired the Three Lions ahead in the fourth minute, but goalkeeper Robert Green fumbled a Clint Dempsey shot into his net just before halftime. That was enough to give the Yanks a share of the points.
“Not a lot, really [that I remember],” he said. “Of course, the Rob Green incident. I felt bad for him. You never want to see that with any goalie, yet alone if your goalie is kind of pushing to be the No. 1 starter and he made that mistake. I thought we had chances in the game, but America played well. USA played well.”
England can count on two things when it heads to a World Cup — feverish support from its massive, traveling fan base and immense pressure from the media, which has a reputation for building up teams and players, then knocking them down. The expectations England has faced in World Cups, with all the reminders of 1966 and so forth, have often been unrealistic, and that can be tough on players if they let it be. Cole never did.
“I think it depends on the player,” he said. “I've been someone who doesn't really read newspapers, so I know there's a big buildup around the World Cup when, of course, England qualify, but I never felt under pressure to play. I just wanted to play, enjoy and do well for my teammates. That was all.”
England's fans might be the most passionate in the world — and there's been problems, too, with hooliganism — and players definitely feel their presence.
“We always know they're going to come in big numbers to support,” Cole said. “Hopefully, they can stick with the guys even if it goes a little bit wayward at the start. Players need that, and there's a lot of young, inexperienced players, so they're going to need the backing of the fans, for sure.”
How far does he think England can go?
“Who knows?” he said. “There's so many big teams involved. I hope they can do well. There's a lot of expectation to produce, but a lot of them, it's their first time at a World Cup. It's going to be difficult for them, but if they stick together, they've got a chance like everyone else.”
Cole's advice for first-timers?
“Enjoy it. You have to keep these memories and enjoy it,” he said. “Of course, you want to win, but not a lot of kids can say they've played in World Cups. Just enjoy it, play with confidence, and, obviously, they're there for a reason. So enjoying is the main thing.”