‘A pinch me moment’ – Rice on captaining England for 50th cap

Declan Rice admitted he was left “speechless” after being named England captain for Tuesday’s friendly against Belgium at Wembley.

The Arsenal midfielder will mark his 50th cap by leading out Gareth Southgate’s side in their final outing before he names his 23-man squad for Euro 2024 on May 16.

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

“I’m speechless to be honest with you,” said Rice speaking on Monday ahead of the game. “I’m absolutely lost for words. When he [Southgate] said to me last night ‘you are going to be captain,’ I gave him a hug, shook his hand and said ‘thank you very much.’ I owe him a lot.

“Since I first came into the team, he has always made me feel at home. I always felt so comfortable playing under him. I’ve really grown in confidence so on my 50th cap, to walk out at Wembley in front of family, my friends, it is an absolute honour. I think you can see my face I am speechless.

“I think I’ve grown so much as a player and a person since I first came into the group at 19. I was probably a bit of a nervous player when I first came into the England squad but as time has gone on, I’ve played more Premier League games, more games at higher levels, big major tournaments.

“I think I’ve grown into it in the side. I’ve enjoyed every single moment of it. Fifty caps is a pinch-me moment.”

Rice’s elevation is in part due to a squad decimated by injury as Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire, Sam Johnstone became the latest trio to withdraw on Sunday.

Harry Kane, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and Kieran Trippier are among the long list of absentees which has limited Southgate’s options and the close proximity of the Euros to the Champions League final — just 13 days apart — could complicate the picture further at the end of the season.

“Our plan [this summer] is still to give players time psychologically to recover which is the biggest aspect at that time of the year,” said Southgate, who confirmed Ivan Toney is set to lead England’s attack against Belgium in Kane’s absence.

“We’re always mindful how we manage the players and again we have to adapt our plans to whatever happens.

“We’ve had clubs in the Champions League finals before. We had a World Cup with only four or five days prep last year. It is increasingly challenging at international level but we’ve got to make the best possible decisions with the hand we have.

“[Now] it is for us to make the best possible decisions with the players we have available. You can’t worry about what we haven’t got. You’ve got to move forward. There are a lot of different reasons for those injuries.

“I think it is more complex than just people looking back to a winter World Cup but every individual situation is different, frankly. It is an incredible number that are unavailable to us — I haven’t experienced that before — but as I said earlier, that means there are opportunities for other people.

“We saw against Brazil people really step up and take those opportunities which is great for us as well.”

Another player currently unavailable to Southgate is Ben White, who has told the Football Association he does not wish to be selected.

Southgate said he was unclear on the precise reasons. Sources have told ESPN that White is reluctant to be a squad player amid the fallout from a disagreement with assistant coach Steve Holland at the 2022 World Cup — something Southgate publicly denies — which contributed to the 26-year-old leaving Qatar earlier than planned during the 2022 World Cup.

Rice is hopeful his Arsenal teammate will return to the setup in future. He told BBC Radio 5Live: “Obviously, Ben, if you know him as a person and as a player like I do, he’s such a good guy. He’s such a good guy and he’s an unbelievable footballer.

“Gareth dealt with it this week, spoke about it. We’ve obviously not been going into the training grounds, so I haven’t spoken to Ben on a one-to-one level about it.

“It’s hard to know really, what’s going on. Obviously, Ben made this decision. He obviously doesn’t want to play for England at this moment in time. Gareth has had a conversation with him about it and there’s not much else I can really say to him.

“Playing for England, the greatest honour you could ever have. So hopefully, with the quality that he has and the quality he can bring to this side that we can get him back in.”