England 6 (Bellingham 35; Saka 43, 62; Sterling 45+1; Rashford 71; Grealish 90) Iran 2 (Taremi 65, 90+10 pen)
Murmurings of England’s demise under Gareth Southgate are greatly exaggerated. Fifa being Fifa, they might use the Hamlet line about “protest” in the wake of this stunning World Cup result, as the Iranians stood silent in solidarity with their embattled people during their national anthem.
For England, it was the first opportunity to serenade King Charles III on foreign soil. They sang to a man before Southgate’s reinvigorated outfit slashed Iran open with first half goals from Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling, followed by Saka’s second, and two more by subs Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish.
At the World Cup no one can hear you scream. The blaring music sees to that. What a shame because both countries’ supporters came out in force, streaming off the Metrolink gold line for what, finally, felt like a major football tournament.
It was 28 degrees outside, but inside the Khalifa International stadium – overshadowing Qatar’s much vaunted Aspire academy – it was chilly. The expensive air conditioning system works.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz – Roy Keane’s old pal from family holidays in Portugal – spoke beforehand about working with some of the game’s great players, Zidane to Ronaldo, yet never encountering a group who “deliver so much with so little.” A backhanded compliment if ever there was one by Alex Ferguson’s former rottweiler.
“Woman, Life, Freedom” has been the incessant chant by Iranians since Mahsa Amini died in police custody in Tehran last September, after the 22-year-old student was arrested for showing some hair under her hijab. As the English players were compelled to abandon the “One Love” captain’s armband, that was meant to support LGBTQ+ rights, when Fifa threatened Harry Kane with a yellow card, the Iranian team refused to let the moment pass by doing nothing.
So they refused to sing, as thousands of their fans whistled, clapped, and openly wept in protest of the Islamic Republic’s crackdown on street marches. The power of protest, on a global stage, for everyone to witness.
The game had barely settled when Kane’s sharp cross missed the lunging Sterling and Harry Maguire, an attack that prompted an 11-minute injury break due to Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and Majid Hosseini clashing faces. A bloodied Beiranvand was eventually stretchered off.
Sterling, Saka and Mason Mount combined for the Chelsea midfielder to slam a shot into the side netting, prompting half the 45,334 crowd to celebrate, but the goals were coming. Even the major tournament version of Maguire reappeared, soaring over Rouzbeh Cheshmi to plant a header off the crossbar.
English drums demanded the dismantling of the Queiroz low-block and a star was born when Bellingham leapt over Majid Hosseini to glance Luke Shaw’s superb delivery into the top corner. The Borussia Dortmund teenager lapped up the adulation, arms spread wide for his iconic shot.
“Hey Jude” was all set to become the song of the summer (sorry, winter) until Saka said “hold my Bud Zero.”
The 21-year-old has been tearing Premier League defences apart this season so his left foot rocket, after a Shaw corner was nudged down by Maguire, should come as no surprise. The boy who missed a penalty at Wembley in the Euros final could end up ruling this tournament, alongside the impressive Bellingham.
But it is Kane who remains the fulcrum of England’s offence, as a cleverly squared ball allowed Sterling toe-poke home a third as Iran crumbled.
The Persians reaction to being owned by England, in their 1982 retro shirts, was to hack them down. Morteza Pouraliganji was booked for trying to shred Kane’s ankle and Trippier was also cut down by Ahmad Nourollahi.
But England refused to let up. Saka took five mesmerizing touches, freezing Hosseini and Milad Mohammadi in their boots, before curling the fourth just after the hour mark.
Iran are no Qatari rabble, as Ali Gholizadeh’s clever assist found Mehdi Taremi to rifle a consolation and the Porto striker also converted an injury time penalty.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for England – Maguire was forced off with a head knock – but the cavalry of Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford secured the rout with the Manchester United forward cutting inside to slide the fifth beyond replacement keeper Hossein Hosseini. Mr Grealish danced a jig on bagging the sixth.
But before the finish Queiroz turned to the crowd with wild gestures and uncharacteristic blow kisses, perhaps seeking to keep spirits high ahead of the Welsh game on Friday.
England: Pickford; Trippier, Stones, Maguire (Dier 70), Shaw; Bellingham, Rice; Saka (Rashford 70), Mount (Foden 71), Sterling (Grealish 71); Kane (Wilson 76).
Iran: Beiranvand (Hosseini 20); Moharrami, Rouzbeh Cheshmi (Kanani 46), Majid Hosseini, Mohammadi (Torabi 63); Hajisafi; Noorollahi (Azmoun 77), Karimi (Ezatollahi 46); Jahanbakhsh (Gholizadeh 46), Taremi, Pouraliganji.
Referee: Raphael Claus (Brazil).