Saka and Bellingham Shine as England Hammer Iran in World Cup Opener

England 6–2 Iran

by Dom Smith

And so the politics stopped and the football started. All you saw was football. No beer in sight. No migrant workers who built ­these stadiums, at least 6,500 of whom died doing so. No OneLove armband on Harry Kane’s right arm for fear of the horrendous purgatory of a yellow card. Once Iran’s 11 silent protestors had refused to sing their national anthem in an act of solitary with Iranian women and objection to their government, all that was left was the football.

For eight minutes, anyway. When Kane’s cross was clawed away by Alireza Beiranvand, the goalkeeper clashed heads with his teammate Majid Hosseini. The head-on-head collision saw both hit the deck, and when Beiranvand returned to his feet he did so with a blooded broken nose and a jaded expression. He tried to play on but it was like watching a film with a blindingly obvious ending.

Within two minutes of the return to play, Beiranvand was down again and signalling to come off. What a surprise. Not. On came Hossein Hosseini in his place, and finally England could find some rhythm and get stuck into this bizarrely surreal World Cup opener.

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They didn’t just find rhythm, they found the perfect time to quell the calls for Gareth Southgate’s head, to end a winless run of six games, to rediscover the sort of attacking synergy that took them to the World Cup semi-final in Russia and the final of Euro 2020 last summer.

Southgate is a pragmatist by nature, but his choice to ditch his back three in favour of a 4-3-3 was a progressive and a brave one. Manchester United’s hopelessly out of form Harry Maguire and Chelsea’s off-colour Raheem Sterling were in. They’re Southgate’s trusted generals. But in too were Bukayo Saka, an extra attacker in the form of Mason Mount, and Jude Bellingham — teenage extraordinaire. They revved up the engine and Iran wilted in the desert heat.

Mount’s snap shot hit the side netting, then Maguire rose — in peak England tournament style — only to crash a header against the crossbar. It felt as though England were winding up another tournament adventure under Gareth. Before long it looked like it too.

Luke Shaw clipped in a sumptuous cross from the left, and there in the middle, unmarked, rising, scoring, was Bellingham. The 19-year-old dipped his header up and then down, arcing under the crossbar of an unmoved Hosseini. Bellingham was also unmoved once he ran to the corner flag — standing, holding his arms aloft, drawing in universal acclaim with a magnetic forcefield. It was Southgate’s risk that had set England on their way. And they were on their way.

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Eight minutes later, Maguire showed his dominance in the air again to beat two Iranians to a Shaw corner. He knocked down intelligently to Saka, who punched a scorching volley up and into the top corner. From the player whose missed penalty had ended England’s last tournament journey, the 21-year-old was the man of the match by a country mile at the Khalifa International Stadium. His poise, his guile, his quickness of mind had the beating of Iran throughout. His dipping strike was a stunner and it had England two up after 43 minutes.

There were 14 minutes of added time because of Beiranvand’s early injury, but England needed only one to turn a clinical first-half lead into a trouncing. Jordan Pickford pinged the ball into Kane’s path, Bellingham found Kane, and Kane’s blindside pass met the agile Raheem Sterling, who hung in the air to angle the ball home with an acrobatic outside-boot volley. For Sterling, his 20th England goal was his first in a World Cup. For England, it all felt a little too easy.

Saka was the gift that kept on giving. Southgate must have felt his decision to start the Arsenal star ahead of Manchester City’s boy wonder of their own, Phil Foden, was vindicated. It most certainly was when Saka took Sterling’s quick pass into his stride, sat down a defender or three, and then calmly tucked the ball into the bottom left corner. Italy, Wembley and Gianluigi Donnarumma felt a long time ago now.

The second half had felt like a procession for England, but like in their 2018 battering of Panama in Nizhny Novgorod, there was to be a reminder of their opponent’s bite. World Cup matches never go entirely your own way. That’s the whole point of World Cups. Subsitute Ali Gholizadeh slipped Porto’s Mehdi Taremi in, who fired home through Pickford’s attempts to save. Iran had a consolation goal to cheer. Cheer they did.

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Not for long though. Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford were on in place of England’s stunning starters. Rashford’s last touch for England was his ill-fate penalty that struck the post against Italy in the Euros final. 49 seconds after his introduction, the reinvigorated Manchester United forward needed just three touches to control, check back onto his left, and slot under Hosseini for England’s fifth. Sterling wasn’t the only experienced attacker to grab his first World Cup goal. The rout was now a trouncing. England were slaying their demons of old.

Perhaps given the unrest back home, it was enough for Iranian fans to simply watch their nation at the World Cup. But you suspect not. Many wanted them to boycott the whole thing. And those who didn’t will have noted with interest that they’re ranked 20th in the world; they came here with genuine ambition. England showed little regard for any of that, cantering round, over and through Iran’s shattered players. Bellingham was a man possessed. He’s played more club football than any other England player so far this season yet he looked the fittest of the lot. The first teenager to play for England at both a World Cup and a Euros.

Kane’s replacement was Callum Wilson and when he ran free you felt he might pick the selfish option. At his first World Cup, he could’ve been forgiven. Instead he tucked square for Grealish to tap home. England had matched their biggest World Cup win — that 6–1 win over Panama in 2018. Then deep into ten minutes of stoppage time, that achievement was undone when John Stones was penalised for a tug. Taremi netted his second with an ice cool penalty but England’s excellent work had long been done — they’d been dizzyingly good. Confidence suddenly goes through the roof. But so does expectation.

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