It wasn’t the England that picky eyeballs had grown accustomed to in bygone World Cups or in recent World Cup preparations. That England seemed heavy so often. Regardless of opponent, this England seemed to be lugging around the weight of some 50 million English people, almost all of whom were knowledgeable football managers or observant player managers. The cacophony of viewpoints in a nation unafraid to express them seemed to result in what such cacophonies often produce: confusion.
Now an England team, winless and helpless in their last six friendlies, awaited their traveling fans at the end of another lane. Their route to the first stadium this time was via the boulevards and up the escalators of the subway stations to this new men’s World Cup. It included mild sunshine, limited heat and a pretty chorus echoing through town: the afternoon call to prayer.
Here came England again, trying to appease the sorrow at only 56 years (since that victory day at Wembley on July 30, 1966, children). Here it came after the promising screws to the semi-finals in Russia 2018 and the final of Euro 2020 at home in 2021, but after a dismal 2022, which thumped with a 4-0 defeat against Hungary in June, the 94 at home as the worst was considered years.
Was it really necessary to try that again?
Then it definitely was as England showered the pitch with beauty. It looked lively and young given the splendor of 21-year-old Bukayo Saka and 19-year-old Jude Bellingham. It wasn’t even annoying that his fat fans in the corner of the stadium sang “Jingle Bells” off-season, with the consolation of the recast of the grandstand lyrics: Oh what fun it is to see England win away from home. There were a few spine-chilling moments as the game kept playing the first World Cup rendition of “God Save The King” since Brazil 1950. It didn’t even bother that “Sweet Caroline” ended things after conquering Earth.
“We’re delighted to start the tournament in this way,” said Gareth Southgate, the coach who has helped England emerge from the morass many times since 2016, “and are very happy with our attacking play. We know it’s usually difficult to score goals against Iran, so that’s a credit [the players’] Movement, the quality of their passing, the quality of their finish.”
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They made beauty in the 32nd minute, in the 35th, in the 43rd, in the 45th + 1st minute and got three goals from it. They treated an audience that knows how to harrumpel to a hodgepodge of things that should be done. In the 32nd minute, Harry Maguire’s header curled, turned and… hit the left end of the crossbar, which didn’t stop him from pleasing to the eyes. In the 35th minute, Luke Shaw sent a cross into the box on the left and Bellingham, 19, turned his head to the left to steer it back to the right and into the back corner of the net.
In the 43rd minute from a corner, Maguire jumped near the right side of the box and headed one in the middle where Saka left footed him in the right side of the goal. And at 45+1, captain Harry Kane faked a defender to gain some space on the right side of the box, then crossed for Raheem Sterling who slammed him out of the air past the right post.
Everything was great, and much of it fueled the serial playing of Gala’s 26-year-old dance hit “Freed From Desire,” one of those pop songs that Brits turn into football songs. They had been freed from the desire to look like they looked on Monday.
“We showed today how much quality we have and what we can do,” Saka said, and the day even brought some lightness into his narration. He was named man of the match after also scoring in the 62nd minute, a balm for his last appearance for England in a major tournament when, just under 20, he won the final penalty in the EURO final against Italy missed. then suffered a racial backlash from some fans.
“I think it’s obviously been quite a while, but it’s a moment that was with me and will always be with me,” he said, “but I’m so thankful for…” — and then he went on a list these included Southgate and his club Arsenal. “Feeling that love from everyone around me is really good for me and gives me confidence.”
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His team knelt for the national anthem in his ongoing statements against racial injustice. Kane didn’t wear the rainbow armband, which FIFA promised a yellow card for in that restricted environment, and Southgate wasn’t shy about responding. “I understand FIFA’s position that you can set a precedent and it’s very difficult where to draw the line,” he said, while clearly disagreeing on that particular issue, saying his team “won’t refuse to speak and will win. I don’t refuse to answer any questions.”
He and the other managers just needed to focus on football now, he said, and in a confused World Cup fraught with host Qatar’s human rights woes their initial performance was unnerving even for Carlos Queiroz.
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Queiroz is managing Iran for the second time in his life, the other from 2011-19, including the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, the latter being a matter of escaping a group that included Spain and Portugal. The most experienced of managers, he has managed national teams in Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Colombia and Egypt, and this is how he says of life: “We win or we learn.” He said he learned a lot on Monday and was simply going up against the invigorating “quality, the speed, the level of competition of the English players” that his side “could not cope with”. That would make them “much better prepared now to play Wales” – and then the United States.
Her learning had bumped up against an England of brilliance and light, an England that has emerged quite a bit in recent years, an England that eyes could absorb more regularly.