DOHA, Qatar — The burden of being England returned to global view Monday in Khalifa International Stadium, whereupon it looked like some giddy antithesis of burden. What was this lightness? What was this beauty? What was this barrage of fine art in this 6-2 pleasure against the proud defense of Iran?
It wasn’t the England to which finicky eyeballs grew accustomed in long-gone World Cups or in recent World Cup preps. That England so often looked heavy. That England, regardless of opponent, seemed to haul around the weight of the 50-odd million English, almost all of them knowledgeable soccer managers or observant player-managers. The cacophony of viewpoints in a nation unafraid to express them seemed to yield what such cacophonies often yield: muddle.
Now an England team winless and feckless across its past six friendlies waited at the end of another trail for its traveling fans. Their trail to the first stadium this time coursed down the boulevards and up the metro station escalators to this new World Cup. It included easy sunshine, limited heat and a pretty chorus ringing through the city: the midafternoon call to prayer.
Here came England again, trying to stanch the woe at a mere 56 years (since that winning day at Wembley Stadium on July 30, 1966, kids). Here it came after promising bolts to the semifinals at Russia 2018 and to the Euro 2020 final at home in 2021 — but after a dour 2022 that throbbed with a 4-0 loss to Hungary in June that counted as the worst at home in 94 years.
Was it really necessary to try this again?
Apparently it was.
Then definitely it was, as England went and lavished the pitch with loveliness. It looked sprightly and young, given the splendor of 21-year-old Bukayo Saka and 19-year-old Jude Bellingham. It wasn’t even annoying that its thick pocket of fans in the corner of the stadium sang “Jingle Bells” out of season, with the solace of the bleacher lyric rewrite: Oh what fun it is to see England win away. It dredged a few goose bumps to hear, repeatedly throughout the match, the first World Cup renditions of “God Save the King” since Brazil 1950. It wasn’t even irksome that “Sweet Caroline,” having swept the Earth, ended matters.
“We’re really pleased to start the tournament in this way,” said Gareth Southgate, the manager who has helped England elude morass much of the time since 2016, “and really pleased with our attacking play. We know that Iran are usually difficult to score goals against, so it’s a credit to [the players’] movement, the quality of their passing, the quality of their finishing.”
They committed beauty at 32 minutes, at 35, at 43, at 45+1, and they wrung three goals from that. They treated an audience that knows how to harrumph to a smorgasbord of how things should be done. At 32 minutes, Harry Maguire’s header curled and spun and … smacked the left end of the crossbar, which didn’t disqualify it from pleasing the eyes. At 35 minutes, Luke Shaw on the left sent a cross into the box, and 19-year-old Bellingham lurched his head toward the left to direct it back to the right and into the back corner of the net.
At 43 minutes off a corner, Maguire leaped near the right side of the box to head one to the center, where Saka left-footed it into the right side of the goal. And at 45+1, captain Harry Kane faked out a defender to claim a little space on the right of the box, then crossed to Raheem Sterling, who banged it out of the air past the right goal post.
Gala’s 26-year-old dance hit “Freed From Desire,” one of those pop songs the Britons repurpose into football songs, played over and over again, as they’d all been freed from the desire to look like they looked on Monday. It was all so fetching that it rendered moot an early fact from the match, that Iran had to replace its goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, after he concussed from a lousy early collision with a teammate. No goalkeeper could have blunted this cosmo English art.
“We showed today how much quality we have and what we can do,” Saka said, and the day even brought some lightness to his narrative. He became the man of the match after scoring also at 62 minutes, a measure of balm for the last time he appeared for England in a major tournament when, just shy of 20, he missed the closing penalty shot in the Euro final against Italy, then suffered racist blowback from some fans.
“I think obviously it was quite a while ago, but it’s a moment that has been with me and will always be with me forever,” he said, “but I’m so grateful to …” — and then he went on a list that included Southgate and his club Arsenal. “When I feel that love from everyone around me, it’s really good for me and gives me confidence.”
His team knelt for the national anthem in its continuing statement against racial injustice. Kane did not wear the rainbow armband for which FIFA promised a yellow card in this restricted environment, and Southgate didn’t shy from addressing that. “I do understand FIFA’s position that you can set a precedent and it’s very difficult as to where do you draw the line,” he said while clearly disagreeing on the particular subject and saying his team “won’t refuse to speak and won’t refuse to answer any questions.”
He and the other managers just have to home in on the soccer right now, he said, and in a muddled World Cup saddled with the human rights issues of host Qatar, their initial performance had been stirring, even to Carlos Queiroz.
Queiroz manages Iran for the second time in life, the other from 2011 to 2019, including World Cups in 2014 and 2018, the latter a matter of almost escaping a group that included Spain and Portugal. He has managed national teams in Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Colombia and Egypt, and so he says of life, “We win, or we learn.” He said he learned amply Monday, simply running up against the bracing “quality, the speed, the competitive level of the English players,” with which his team “was not able to cope.” It would leave Iran “much better prepared now to play against Wales” — and then the United States.
Their learning had come against an England of brilliance and light, an England that has turned up some in recent years, an England the eyes could get comfortable taking in more regularly.
World Cup in Qatar
The latest: The World Cup continues with Group G winner Brazil taking on Group H runner-up South Korea in a round-of-16 game in Doha, Qatar. The winner of this game will play Croatia in a quarterfinal on Friday after the Croatians beat Japan in penalty kicks earlier Monday. Follow our live coverage for the latest news, analysis and highlights.
USMNT: The U.S. men’s national team fell to the Netherlands, 3-1, on Saturday in the opening match of the round of 16. The United States has not won a World Cup knockout match since 2002, when it beat regional rival Mexico in the round of 16 in South Korea.
Knock out round schedule: A World Cup group stage filled with shocking upsets and dramatic turnarounds will now give way to a knockout round that promises more surprises.
Perspective: “The incremental progress was clear, but more than that, the players performed in a matter that indicates they are on a path to immense growth. There is a cohesion and energy about the United States that should inspire belief.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.