The sound of silence bounced off and echoed on the terraces of Khalifa International Stadium as Iran players lined up for the national anthem but did not sing. And when television cameras zoomed in on a woman in a hijab crying silently, you knew Team Melli had left an impact on the World Cup before they had kicked a ball. From Vaka Hakhamaneshi in the Indian Super League (ISL) to Sardar Azmoun and his mates, footballers in Iran have not shied from telling the world that women’s choices matter.
There are few things more soul-stirring at World Cup games than teams belting out the national anthem and swathes of the stadium singing along. If the Hino Nacional Brasileiro ringing across venues stadiums when Brazil played was one of the takeaways of 2014, Iran’s refusal to do that would be remembered from this. It was an act of defiance reminiscent of the Black Power salute in the 1968 Olympics. Faced with the threat of bookings and sendings-off, England and other countries have decided against wearing an armband showing solidarity with the LGBTQ+ but you can’t sanction silence. So, Iran protested while England fell in line.
Silence at the start was supplanted by the roar from Iran supporters to help in Hossein Hosseini’s baptism of fire. The 30-year-old Esteghlal goalkeeper made his international debut when Alireza Beiranvand collided with defender Majid Hosseini, resumed after treatment for over five minutes – there were 14 minutes of added time in the first half largely because of him – but after further treatment, realised he couldn’t carry on. Carlos Queiroz raised arms to convey the feeling that fates have aligned against his men as Beiranvand was replaced.
A smooth regulation collection off Bukayo Saka was Hossein’s initiation into the game but he could do nothing when Jude Bellingham popped up to put England ahead in the 35th minute. The last World Cup saw a teenager breakthrough in Kylian Mbappe and based on what he did on Monday, this could be where the Borussia Dortmund starlet becomes a star. The midfielder sits deep but knows when to make runs that are hard to track. He got England’s World Cup campaign up and running, beating his marker to superbly head home Luke Shaw’s delivery.
It capped a period of England domination that saw Mason Mount blast into the side-netting and Harry Maguire head into the horizontal. Maguire, the England centre-back, again showed with his attacking instincts why despite slipping in the pecking order at Manchester United, manager Gareth Southgate keeps the faith in him. He connected the header after getting the better of a physical challenge from Rouzbeh Cheshmi, their battle providing an interesting sideshow in the first half.
It was Maguire who created the second goal, in the 43rd minute, heading down a ball giving Bukayo Saka the chance to unleash a thunderous left-foot volley that got the normally taciturn Southgate leaping out of his seat. Two minutes later, off a move so slick that it could have come from the land of football artists and not a cold island that gave the world the long ball game, England were 3-0 up.
It is a measure of how dominant they were that it is here Harry Kane first finds mention. Kane dropped off and played provider in what was a well-oiled collective show but, on this occasion, he sortied down the right to deliver and Raheem Sterling scored with an instinctive jab.
Queiroz took out Alireza Jahanbaksh, Cheshmi and Karim Ali and bringing on Ali Gholizadeh, Hossein Kanani and Saeid Ezatolahi in the second half. Iran had ended the first with Jahanbaksh unmarked but unable to keep a right-footer on target. But Saka made it 4-0 with another well taken goal, feinting right and going left after Sterling found him in the 62nd minute. Mehdi Taremi pulled one back in the 65th with an excellent chip but England restored their four-goal cushion because Marcus Rahsford came, saw and conquered. Or rather, Kane, saw and conquered given that it was the England No. 9’s vision that crafted it.
Jack Grealish made it 6-1 in the 89th minute but Taremi’s penalty in the 11th minute of second-half stoppage time meant England couldn’t equal their biggest-ever World Cup win, the 6-1 victory against Panama in 2018. But an eight-goal game meant Juergen Klinsmann’s hope that this would a World Cup with emphasis on attack is alive and well.