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Revealed: Ben White rejected England after Steve Holland remark about interest in football

Ben White with England at the Qatar World Cup
Ben White was accused of not being sufficiently interested in football - PA/Nick Potts

The rift that led to Ben White’s self-imposed England exile began with a barbed comment from Gareth Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland in front of team-mates at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

Telegraph Sport understands the fall-out that eventually led to White asking to come home from England’s Doha base at the World Cup in November of that year started with a conversation between the player and Holland in front of other members of the squad. It was described by sources as having begun when Holland asked Kyle Walker a question relating to Manchester City’s performance in the previous season.

When he asked the same of White relating to Arsenal, the 26-year-old said that he did not know the answer. It is claimed Holland responded by saying that was because White was not sufficiently interested in football. It was that moment that ultimately led to the player asking to come home on November 30.

The exchange was understood to have been days before the player asked to leave the England camp in Doha. Until that request was delivered, Southgate and his staff thought that there was no longer an issue between White and Holland. There was no row or clash – public or private – between the pair. Subsequent to the initial comment from Holland, the two men did exchange their views in a private conversation on the same day.

England Manager Gareth Southgate and England Assistant Manager Steve Holland look on during an England training session at Al Wakrah Stadium on December 08, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
Steve Holland (right) has worked with Gareth Southgate for more than 10 years - Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

The FA made the announcement on November 30 that White had left the hotel in Al Wakrah for “personal reasons” and asked that his privacy be respected.

Details about the original exchange between Holland and White that led to the divide suggest that the player’s issue was the public nature of it, occurring as it did in front of a group of his peers. At the heart of the problem appears to be a question of the respect accorded to the player. White was not in the first-choice XI in that tournament, although that is not understood to have been the key reason for the unhappiness on his part.

Southgate announced last week that the Arsenal defender had made himself unavailable for selection for England – adding that he did not know why that was the case. Southgate also went on to say that it was unrelated to White’s relationship with Holland, his long-term England assistant. Speaking on the issue on Thursday, Southgate said: “Also, I should say there’s never any issue with Steve Holland [and White], because that has sort of been mentioned in articles and I don’t like that.”

The issue has become significant enough that the rift not only saw White return from Qatar just after the final group-stage game against Wales, but has also meant he has chosen not to play subsequently. Southgate said that there was a “reticence” on the part of the player to resume international duty when he spoke to him in the months after Qatar.

How many attempts Southgate has made to recall White since the World Cup is not clear. The decision about the latest squad, with games against Brazil and Belgium over the next six days, was conveyed by Arsenal sporting director Edu to his FA counterpart John McDermott.

The Football Association has declined to comment. Arsenal have declined to comment. So too have White’s representatives. Southgate has been adamant that the issue is not with Holland. He said last week: “People can talk about me, and I have to accept that things get said that are false about me. For whatever reason in this role, you have to almost stomach that. But I’m not prepared for that to happen for a key member of my coaching team because that is not the reason Ben is unavailable for selection.”

On the morning of Southgate’s squad announcement last week, Arsenal also announced that White had signed a new deal at the club to 2028 with a further one-year option. It was accompanied by a video of testimonies from his team-mates. The club has indicated that the announcement was always planned for that day, although it appeared to observers to be a way of mitigating what might have been expected to be a negative response to what was later disclosed by Southgate.

Southgate has said that the door remains open to White with England, should he change his mind. White said in a recent interview with Telegraph Sport and other media that the perception he does not love the game is untrue. He enjoys matches and training but has less interest outside of that. “I know people say I don’t like football,” he said this month. “I go home and football is not on my mind. I can just be a normal person, relax. [But] when I am in here, it is intense.”

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