LONDON (AFP) - It is "outrageous" to suggest England's football players do not care about representing their country, manager Gareth Southgate said ahead of Monday's pivotal World Cup qualifier against Slovakia.
England were jeered by their own fans during Friday's laboured 4-0 win in Malta and critics on social media claimed the players were not motivated.
Southgate lamented the booing directed at his players - "I don't see how it can help the team" - and said the age-old English obsession with passion and pride missed the point.
"I fully recognise that our job is to try and entertain and excite the supporters," Southgate told journalists at the Tottenham Hotspur training ground in Enfield, north London on Sunday.
"But we're all Englishmen, we want to progress to a World Cup and we're in this together.
"The notion the players aren't proud to play is outrageous, really, because they're unbelievably proud to play.
"At times, we won't play as well as we'd like to, but there's nobody in that dressing room that's giving me less than 100 per cent."
He added: "The easiest, basest reaction is to say, 'Oh, they don't care.'
"More often than not, players have cared too much and have been wrapped up in the whole experience too much and not been able to give their best for that reason.
"Having worn the shirt, that's where I think I can bring some context to it. Because it's not about 'caring'."
Southgate, capped 57 times by England as a player, suggested there might be historical explanations for why debates about the national team are often framed in simplistic, emotional terms.
"I think it's a national characteristic," said Southgate, who played for the fondly remembered England team that reached the semi-finals of Euro '96 on home soil.
"We are a country that's an island. We have fought wars to remain as an island. My family have been involved in that.
"So there's always been a sort of aggressive side to that. But we've got to win football matches and we've got to be tactically and technically right to do that. Just working hard won't be enough.
"Our historic judgement of the team is 'work hard, bulldog spirit...' I played in teams that had that, but we didn't have the other bits that you need to win.
"In '96, we had a bit of everything - we had tactical intelligence, leaders, strong characters, good technical players and home advantage. Unfortunately success is not just about hard work and passion."
England are two points above Slovakia at the top of Uefa qualifying Group F and if they beat them at Wembley, they will require just two points from their last two games - against Slovenia and Lithuania - to reach the World Cup.
Southgate said it was unrealistic to compare his team to Spain, who took charge of their own qualifying group with a dazzling 3-0 win over Italy on Saturday, saying England remained a "work in progress".
But he revealed Spain coach Julen Lopetegui had expressed admiration for England striker Harry Kane, who has scored five goals in his last three international appearances.
The 24-year-old Tottenham striker is renowned for having a powerful drive to improve himself as a player and Southgate believes he is an example to his England team-mates.
"I was having some interaction with Julen Lopetegui at a game and he was commenting on how lucky I was to have Harry playing," Southgate said.
"He's in top form, but he's also got the mentality to want to be the best. He knows where he's sitting at the moment.
"I asked him how many goals in how many games (he'd scored) this morning and he knew. And he also knew how many Ronaldo and Messi had at this point (in their careers) and everybody else.
"He's driven to be one of the world's best. Why can't that happen moving forward?"