In England, people normally look forward to a soccer World Cup. Several traditions have developed for the period leading up to the tournament. There is a vociferous debate about the squad, the strategies, the right starting XI and whether this side can put an end to the “painful years” since England won their first and only major tournament, the 1966 World Cup. People raise the flag of St. George from their cars. In the weeks leading up to the first group game, a key player often gets injured and starts the “race to be fit” for the tournament. (I remember taking a crash course in metatarsal structure when David Beckham broke his foot just before the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea; this information came in handy when Wayne Rooney was preparing for the May 2006 World Cup World Cup also broke his metatarsal in Germany.) There are major concerns about the behavior of English fans abroad.
In 2022, however, the atmosphere in England has felt subdued. There are obvious reasons English fans are less excited about Qatar 2022 than they have been about previous World Cups. The tournament, which has cost more than two hundred billion dollars to run, is mired in controversy that I hardly need to repeat. The main topic of discussion on BBC radio on the morning of England’s first game against Iran was whether Harry Kane – the captain of an England team that often displays its progressive views – would wear a rainbow-themed “OneLove” captain’s armband, signaling his support for LGBTQ+ -Rights and if the referee would give him a yellow card for it. (A few hours before kick-off, FIFA confirmed that any player wearing such an armband would be penalized with a yellow card; England, along with other nations, capitulated and announced their players would not wear them.)
But this is also a strange time of year for a World Cup. The tournament, which has always been held in a summer in the northern hemisphere, should feel like a holiday – even if the fans only travel between the fridge and the couch. During the scorching English summer of 2018 when the World Cup was being held in Russia, a neighbor of mine bought the biggest home TV I had ever seen and then installed it in his garden. Whenever a game was played, several households would gather at the Megatron Garden to watch the game and eat grilled sausages. The children ran around; The adults drank beer. It was heaven.
Qatar moved the tournament to the northern hemisphere winter due to the extreme heat of the summer – a fact that was evident when the country won its 2010 bid but which was somehow ignored. Instead of filling the summer gap between Premier League seasons, the World Cup has now interrupted a particularly interesting one. My neighbor’s garden is soaked. Nobody on our street organizes World Cup parties. English actor Daniel Mays summed up the mood around Qatar 2022 in one tweet: “Maybe my feelings will change when the tournament fever kicks in, but I can’t be mad about the World Cup. I never thought I would ever think that and I love my footie. Wrong time, wrong place, everything wrong 👎.”
One could also ask: Wrong opponent? Iran has been rocked by pro-women’s rights demonstrations following the death of Mahsa Amini in prison. Dozens of people have died in the protests. The question was raised as to whether Iran should even be at the World Cup. But then, who does a national team represent? Its people or its government? Iranian captain Ehsan Hajsafi said at a press conference yesterday that his team supported the protesters at home. And he and his teammates confirmed this attitude shortly before kick-off. When the national anthem was played, Iranians booed in the crowd and the players didn’t sing a word. It was an act of remarkable bravery that overshadowed England’s armband weakness.
Given the circumstances and the strange atmosphere that surrounds this whole tournament, it felt jarring when the first ball was kicked. Iran is ranked 20th in the world and is no weakling. The team’s Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz, had formed his squad defensively. He played five in defence, with a lone striker up front: the prolific Mehdi Taremi, who often scores for his club Porto. But England completely dominated her opponent. The English effort was spearheaded by two youngsters – Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham, who roamed the pitch; and Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, who looked deadly every time he had the ball – but the whole team looked confident and quick-witted.
After 35 minutes, Bellingham started with a header over the Iranian goalkeeper. Clever goals followed for Saka and Raheem Sterling. At half time the game was as good as over. In the second half, England scored three more goals: through Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish. The Iranian players grew ragged and their tackles fierce, although they scored two goals in the second half, both from Taremi – the first a powerful shot after a quick counterattack, the second a coolly executed penalty following a dubious foul in the penalty area last minute of added time . The game ended 6-2 to England. The two remaining group games against USA and Wales will certainly test England more than Iran.
After the final whistle, the BBC’s television commentator hinted that England could finally be gripped by ‘World Cup fever’. He’s probably right. England love nothing more than a winning streak at a major tournament and most of the team’s fans don’t care too much about geopolitics. The weather in England is currently appalling and the country is in the throes of a cost of living crisis. Football is a powerful drug. I bet the squabbling over armbands and human rights will soon be forgotten and the pubs and fan parks packed for England’s next game. I’m waiting for a call from my neighbor. ♦