THE World Cup in Qatar saw its first real eruption of emotion on Monday. There were two loud goal celebrations in the opening game of the tournament between Qatar and Ecuador a day earlier but this was louder; almost raising the roof of the Khalifa International Stadium.
Jude Bellingham, the prodigious midfielder, was unmarked as his England team-mate Luke Shaw whipped a corner from the left and his looping header left Iran’s substitute goalkeeper Hossein Hosseini a spectator as the ball hit the back of the net. There was pandemonium. England’s Bellingham’s 35th-minute opening goal opened the floodgates for England. They just waltzed through Iran; Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling padding the score before half-time. By then the game was all but over. Saka got his second of the game in the second half, and after Mehdi Taremi had replied with a goal for Iran, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish joined the party with goals to seal a 6-2 rout.
Questions had been asked of Gareth Southgate’s England, semi-finalists at the last edition of the World Cup in Russia and beaten finalists at last year’s European Championships after being relegated to the second tier of the Nations League campaign only months before the World Cup. But here, they put up a performance that displayed their credentials of going far at this tournament.
Some of their fans didn’t even get to see most of it. A large number of England supporters were at the stadium gates, at the ticket resolution point, minutes away from kick-off due to a problem with FIFA’s ticketing app. Yet, the stadium was buzzing in expectation of a humdinger of a contest.
Britain — or England, rather — is oft-referred to as the ‘Old Fox’ by Iranians. Unlike the Unites States, who have also been drawn in Group ‘B’ alongside the two who were slugging it out on the pitch, Iran has diplomatic relations with Britain. But there have been tensions when Iran has threatened to seal off the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean — a key route for oil carriers to the West.
The difference between the two teams, however, wasn’t as narrow as that strait. Iran wilted in a game which was being played in the backdrop of political unrest in Iran, sparked after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman died in custody after being arrested for not following the country’s dress code. English press had repeatedly claimed that Iran needed to be booted out of the World Cup.
In protest to events back home, none of the Iranian players sang the national anthem. They were tight-lipped and then bagged back tightly into their own half. The tempo had been set from the first whistle; it was going to be England who will come after Iran with the Asia’s top-ranked side looking to hit on the counter.
Five minutes in, there was a lengthy interruption. Defending a free-kick, Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiravand suffered a nasty clash of heads with defender Majid Hosseini. Bleeding profusely, he was treated by the medics and then decided to play on only to come aground moments later and replaced by Hossein Hosseini.
The stoppage didn’t affect England’s rhythm. Instead, they came at Iran with greater verve, getting closer and closer with each chance. First Mason Mount hit the side-netting from Saka’s reverse and then minutes later, on the half hour mark, Harry Maguire thundered a header off the crossbar.
England were raising the tempo and the 19-year-old Bellingham, playing his first-ever World Cup game, gave them the lead they thoroughly deserved.
Iran were having difficulty just getting the ball out of their own half and England kept forcing them back. They got their second in the 43rd from another World Cup debutant; the 21-year-old Saka of Arsenal firing in first-time on the volley after Maguire nodded down a Kieran Trippier corner into his path.
England were rampant and Sterling, one of the veterans in this England squad, made it 3-0 in the first of 14 added minutes at the end of the first half, connecting to a cross into the box by Harry Kane with his outfoot.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz made three half-time substitutions but he couldn’t reverse the tide. Saka made it 4-0 two minutes past the hour mark, dribbling across three Iranian defenders before finding the bottom corner after being found out by Sterling.
Taremi pulled a goal back for Iran three minutes later with a superb first-time finish that arrowed into the roof of the net, Rashford, on as a substitute, scored with just his second touch of the ball — the first was to control Kane’s pass — after cutting inside from the right and planting a finish at Hosseini’s far post.
England weren’t done yet and Grealish then got a sixth to complete an emphatic victory, after being set up by Callum Wilson for a tap-in.
Iran had given up. The game, the occasion, and perhaps the thoughts of events back home, had taken its toll on them. There were still 10 minutes of additional time to play, though. Just when they seemed bereft of ideas, they carved a chance but Sardar Azmoun — who has been very vocal about the situation in Iran — saw his shot deflected by England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to the crossbar.
They did get a consolation though with just about the last kick of the game after VAR penalised John Stones for tugging at the shirt of Taremi, who made no mistake from the spot.
Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2022