Fifa President Gianni Infantino said on Saturday it was time to stop talking about politics and “when the ball rolls” everyone would focus on football.
It didn’t quite work out. Instead, Monday began with headlines about Fifa threatening to fine European captains if they go ahead with their plans to wear a pro-inclusion armband in their opening matches. The group of sides, including England, Wales and the Netherlands, relented, but only after a few terse words about world football’s governing body.
The Dutch Football Association said: “Together with the other countries involved, we will critically question our relationship with Fifa in the coming period.”
England’s opponents Iran also made headlines off the pitch. The team remained silent during the pre-game national anthem, which many saw as a protest against the regime in Tehran. Fans in the crowd hissed and jeered throughout the anthem. After that, Iran coach Carlos Queiroz urged fans to keep politics out of the World Cup so players can focus on football. “Let the kids play the game,” he said.
What to see on Tuesday: The champions return but without Benzema
On Tuesday we get our first look at champions France as they take on Australia in the late kick-off. Les Bleus are third favorites behind Brazil and Argentina.
History is not on their side – no country has won a consecutive World Cup since 1962, while four of the last five champions have lost in the first round of the following tournament.
France go into the competition with just one win in six and suffer from injuries to a number of key players. Midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté are absent, as is Karim Benzema, recently voted the best player in the world. Some others remain in doubt.
Benzema’s loss is a huge blow. At 34, the Real Madrid center forward is in the form of his life. Last year he scored 27 goals and provided 12 assists in 32 Spanish league games. In the Champions League – which Real won again – he scored 15 times in just 12 games. No wonder he won the Ballon d’Or.
It might be difficult to find a silver lining, but could all these setbacks prove to be a blessing in disguise for France? The French have a history of following success with overconfidence. With a makeshift midfield and Benzema absent, perhaps minds will be more focused. With Kylian Mbappé at the helm, France will still be an intimidating opponent for anyone.
Read Simon Kuper’s full preview of the French team here.
Schedule on Tuesday:
Argentina vs Saudi Arabia, 10:00am UK time/1:00pm Doha time.
Denmark v Tunisia, 1pm UK time/4pm Doha time
Mexico vs. Poland, 4:00pm UK time/7:00pm Doha time
France vs Australia, 7pm UK time/10pm Doha time
Monday’s highlight: England gallop to victory over Iran
Gareth Southgate’s men began this World Cup campaign in much the same way as the previous one. England defeated Iran 6-2 and would have equaled the 6-1 result against Panama in Russia four years earlier had it not been for an Iran penalty at the end. In 2018, however, they lost whenever they faced serious opposition.
Monday was a useful confidence exercise for a team that has been lacking in form. Arsenal striker Bukayo Saka was named man of the match with two goals, while Jude Bellingham directed midfield with a precision and coolness well beyond his 19 years.
England looked safe and carried a threat throughout. But they’ll face better sides than Iran and need to fix a few things if they want to take on a serious challenge this time.
Read Simon Kuper’s full analysis of England’s win here.
England 6 Iran 2
Senegal 0 Netherlands 2
USA 1 Wales 1