EEngland have never had a World Cup opener like this. Six goals and a performance imbued with exuberance and tantalizing possibilities set the stage for the next four weeks in Qatar. Yet that match will surely be remembered for something else: the remarkable sight of Iranian players refusing to sing the national anthem in a gesture of solidarity with oppressed women and protesters back home.
As the anthem echoed through the Khalifa International Stadium, Iranian players pursed their lips, bowed their heads and shook their shoulders. Their stares at 1,000 meters also told you something else: that they and their families could soon pay a heavy price. And yet they continued. The rebels and the damned. A television camera films an Iranian woman in the stands. She cried.
Many Iranian women here sported T-shirts with the phrase “Woman, Life, Freedom”, which has become a rallying cry for protesters since a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, died in the hospital while she was in custody. His offence? Not wearing the scarf correctly. They also wore skirts and dresses, sang songs and smiled: fundamental freedoms denied at home.
What made this show of courage from the Iranian players so powerful was that they came under immense pressure to stay out of the revolution in Iran, which human rights groups say man, left more than 450 dead and more than 15,000 arrested.
Under the eyes, two Iranian supporters, Bardia and Fred, saluted the bravery of the players. Bardia had put black tape on his team shirt badge to signal his opposition to the regime, while Fred explained why so many thousands cheered on their team in Qatar.
“For Iranians everywhere, our hearts go out to women and young people,” he said. “Our team belongs to the people, not to the Islamic regime.”
The Iran team fought hard for the next 90 minutes but were no match for England. For years, supporters have urged Gareth Southgate to “release the handbreak”. Not only did the England manager do this, he poured super-diesel into the tank and slammed on the throttle.
A goal from teenager Jude Bellingham started the rout before Bukayo Saka (two), Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish finished the job. Grealish’s celebration was particularly noteworthy. The Manchester City playmaker promised an 11-year-old fan with cerebral palsy that he would throw a celebration in his honor the next time he scored – and proved as good as his word.
Not that Southgate was entirely satisfied, noting with frustration how his side conceded two late goals. “We know Iran are usually very difficult to play against, so it’s a credit to our players and the movement, the quality of our passing, the quality of our finishing,” he said. declared. “But I didn’t like the end of the match. I understand the focus drift, but that won’t be enough for us to progress in the tournament.
It turned out to be another hectic day at this World Cup, and it started with another protest that ended smoothly. Over the past two months, England and Wales have been among seven European countries that have pledged to wear OneLove armbands to protest discrimination in Qatar. However, after Fifa warned them on Sunday night they would face sporting penalties – potentially including a yellow card for their captains – they backed down on Monday morning.
From a sporting point of view, the decision was understandable, given that it could lead to players missing crucial knockout matches. But the contrast with the bravery of the Iranian players was striking. As former British Olympian Jeanette Kwakye noted: “The most powerful manifestations of world sport have not required permission.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Southgate said he understood Fifa’s decision. “You can set a precedent and it’s very difficult to know where to draw the line,” he said. “But people know what we stand for.”
However, many human rights organizations have been far less lenient, with veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell accusing Fifa President Gianni Infantino of showing his ‘true colors’ after speaking out about inclusiveness this weekend.
“I urge team captains in their post-match press conferences to only spend 30 seconds defending the rights of women, LGBT and migrant workers,” he said. “It would have a huge impact, reaching a global audience of hundreds of millions.
“Fifa have crushed the OneLove campaign with the threat of yellow cards. It’s time to show Fifa and Qatar the red card.”
Fifa said it only enforces its longstanding regulations “to preserve the integrity of the playing field” and that it is an “inclusive organisation”. Captains will instead wear other armbands as part of Fifa’s No Discrimination campaign.
Fifa soon faced fire from a different direction as hundreds of England fans found themselves unable to log into their official mobile ticketing app before entering the pitch. Football’s governing body attempted to resolve the situation by resending ticketing emails and asking fans to have them printed at the stadium’s ticket resolution point.
But that led to huge queues, with many fans still outside when England and Iran kicked off, as scheduled, at 4pm. There was still time for one last surprise, with Iran coach Carlos Queiroz telling Iranian fans who booed the anthem to stay away from the World Cup if they were going to use it to political statements.
“Those who come to bother the team with issues that don’t just concern football opinions are not welcome,” Queiroz said. “They are just simple football boys. They have only one dream, to play football. It’s not their fault that the World Cup is happening right now. The moral is: let the kids play the game.”
Meanwhile, the bookmakers responded to England’s 6-2 victory by making them third favorites, behind Brazil and Argentina, for the trophy.
World Cups are not won in the first game, of course. But a tone can be given. A placed marker. England are now even more favorites to win Group B. Accomplish that and a Round of 16 tie against Ecuador or Senegal is on the cards. A quarter-final against a French team deprived of several of its best players due to injury, or Denmark, could then follow. Whisper it, but here we go again.