DOHA, Qatar (AP) – The last time Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford left the field at a major international soccer tournament, they were bombarded with racist abuse.
Three goals for England in the team’s opening game at this year’s World Cup was their immediate response.
Saka scored twice before giving way to Rashford, who scored another in the second half of England’s 6-2 win over Iran on Monday.
The jubilant scene at the Khalifa International Stadium contrasted with the tears shed after England lost on penalties to Italy in last year’s Euro final. Saka and Rashford were both unable to convert from the spot and were targeted on social media.
“It’s a moment that was with me and will be with me forever,” said Saka, who was just 19 during Euro 2020. “But I’m so blessed and so grateful to have the coaching staff, not only here in the England team but also at Arsenal.
“My friends and family have hugged me along with my teammates and the nation has supported me to help me get back to a good place. I feel that love from everyone around me.”
The victory is also encouragement for manager Gareth Southgate, who endured the most difficult period of his tenure in England last year. In a difficult build-up to the Qatar tournament, he was booed after a 4-0 defeat by Hungary in June and humiliated by his own fans as they chanted, “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Hundreds of fans missed the start of Monday’s game due to a digital ticket issue. As they finally made their way to their seats, they witnessed an absolutely dominant performance from England.
Jude Bellingham’s first international goal opened the scoring in the 35th minute.
Saka then scored his first game in the 43rd and Raheem Sterling added another in first-half injury time. Saka scored his second goal just after the hour mark, but Mehdi Taremi pulled one back for Iran in the 65th minute.
Rashford struck six minutes later to extend England’s lead to 5-1 and Jack Grealish also came off the bench to score a sixth in the 90th minute. Taremi added another for Iran from the penalty spot deep in injury time after John Stones was penalized for holding Morteza Pouraliganji’s shirt in the penalty area.
The game was delayed by several minutes in the first half when Iranian goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand collided with a teammate’s head. He was eventually taken off the field on a stretcher, the score being 0-0.
His successor, Hossein Hosseini, was left with the unenviable task of confronting England’s powerful attack.
The game had a total of 29 minutes of stoppage time, 15 minutes in the first half and 14 in the second.
After the game, Iran coach Carlos Queiroz begged fans to support the team after obvious boos amid protests in the country for women’s rights during the national anthem.
“All Iranians in the stadium are welcome and are welcome to criticize,” he said. “Those who come to disrupt the team with issues that are not just about football opinions are not welcome. They’re just simple soccer boys. You have a dream to play soccer. It’s not their fault that the World Cup is happening. The moral is: let the kids play the game. They want to represent the country, represent the people.”
Bellingham had not even made his senior debut at the time of the last World Cup in 2018. Now the Borussia Dortmund midfielder is one of the most sought-after players in Europe and is expected to spark a major transfer battle at the end of the season. Monday’s performance will likely see his reputation grow even further.
KANE is OK
Southgate said Harry Kane was not injured despite concerns as he went down under a challenge in the second half and was later substituted.
“I think Harry is fine,” said the coach. “It looked like a bad tackle but he went on and we took him out because we thought it was a moment where we could pull it off.”
England meets the United States and Iran meets Wales on Friday.
AP World Cup Coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
James Robson is there https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson