England’s Smooth Start; Iran’s Players Stand with Home Fans

England scored six against Iran in Qatar’s strange atmosphere.

The buildup to a soccer World Cup is often ferocious in England. In the time leading up to the event, certain customs have emerged. The roster, the tactics, the ideal starting eleven, and whether this side can stop the “years of pain” since England won its sole major event, the 1966 World Cup, are all the subject of loud debates. From their cars, they fly the St. George flag. In the weeks leading up to the first group game, a significant player is often injured, which sets off a “race to be fit” for the tournament. (I recall getting a crash lesson in the anatomy of the metatarsal bones when David Beckham injured his foot just before the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea; the same knowledge was helpful when Wayne Rooney fractured his metatarsals in May 2006, just before the World Cup in Germany.) Concerns about the conduct of English supporters overseas are quite real.

However, the mood in England was subdued in 2022. English supporters’ lack of excitement for Qatar 2022 compared to past World Cups is understandable. I hardly need to go over the controversy-plagued event, which cost more than 200 billion dollars to arrange. Whether England captain Harry Kane would wear a rainbow-themed “One Love” captain’s armband to show his support for L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights and whether the referee would give him a yellow card for doing so was the main topic of conversation on BBC radio the morning of England’s first game against Iran. England is a team that frequently expresses its progressive views. (A few hours before the match, FIFA stated that any player using such an armband would be subject to a yellow card; England capitulated and made the decision to forgo the armband.)

England’s Smooth Start; Iran’s Players Stand with Home Fans

But a World Cup at this time of year is also unusual. Even if spectators only go between their refrigerator and their sofa throughout the event, which has traditionally been held during the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it should still seem like a holiday. When the World Cup was being hosted in Russia in the sweltering English summer of 2018, a neighbor of mine purchased and then constructed the biggest home television I’d ever seen in his yard. Several homes met in Megatron Garden each time a game was on to watch the game and enjoy grilled sausages. The grownups drank beer while the children played. Heaven was there.

Due to the high heat of its summer, Qatar moved the event to the northern hemisphere winter, a decision that was immediately clear when the nation won the bid in 2010, but that was strangely overlooked. The World Cup has now cut short a highly intriguing Premier League season, rather than bridging the summer gap. Water has flooded the garden of my neighbor. Parties for the World Cup are not being planned on our street. In a tweet, the English actor Daniel Mays encapsulated the atmosphere around Qatar 2022: “I can’t be arsed about the World Cup.” Maybe my emotions will change once tournament fever sets in. I never imagined thinking that, yet I adore soccer. Everything was wrong—wrong location, wrong time. 

Incorrect opponent? Iran protests for women’s rights after Mahsa Amini’s death in custody.

Another question is, “Wrong opponent?” Following the murder of Mahsa Amini while she was being held in detention, protests for women’s rights have erupted across Iran. During the demonstrations, dozens of individuals have passed away. Iran’s participation in the World Cup has come under scrutiny. Who does a national team, then, represent? Is it the government or the people? Ehsan Hajsafi, the captain of the Iranian squad, said yesterday at a news conference that his team was in favor of the domestic protesters. And shortly before the game began, he and the other players strengthened this position. Iranian spectators booed at the playing of the national anthem, while the players made no attempt to sing along. It was a brave gesture that exposed England’s gullibility.

The first ball being kicked was startling given these conditions and the weird mood that permeates this whole event. Iran is no pushover; it is rated 20th in the world. Carlos Queiroz, the team’s Portuguese manager, had positioned his players defensively. He used five players across the defense despite having only one attacker up front—the dangerous Mehdi Taremi, who frequently scores for his club Porto.However, England completely outplayed its rival. Two young players, Bukayo Saka of Arsenal, who looked lethal whenever he got the ball, and Jude Bellingham of Borussia Dortmund, who roamed all over the field, led the English effort, but the whole squad exuded confidence and fast thinking.

England’s Smooth Start; Iran’s Players Stand with Home Fans

Bellingham opened the scoring with a flying header past the Iranian goalkeeper after 35 minutes of scoreless play. Saka and Raheem Sterling then scored deft goals. The game was all but finished at the half. England scored three more goals in the second half through Saka, Marcus Rashford, and Jack Grealish. Although Iran scored two second-half goals, both from Taremi—the first a thunderous shot after a rapid break and the second a coolly executed penalty kick after a questionable foul was granted in the last minute of injury time—their players were ragged and their tackles were rash. England won 6-2 to end the game. The two remaining group games for England, against the United States and Wales, will undoubtedly be more difficult than the one against Iran.

The BBC television analyst said that “World Cup fever” may have finally reached England after the final whistle. He is very likely correct. The majority of the team’s supporters are not very concerned with geopolitics, and the English adore nothing more than a run of success in a major tournament. England is now experiencing terrible weather and rising living costs. Soccer is a powerful drug. I predict that England’s next game will have filled bars and fan parks because the debates about armbands and human rights will quickly be forgotten. I’m anticipating my neighbor’s call.

From Haotees

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