Doha (AFP) – England made a scintillating start to their World Cup campaign as Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham inspired a 6-2 rout of outclassed Iran in Monday’s Group B opener in Doha.
Saka and Bellingham were England’s driving forces with dynamic displays that underlined their emergence as two of the game’s brightest young stars.
Bellingham, 19, shattered Iran’s hopes of frustrating England when he rose to head his maiden senior international goal in the first half.
Gareth Southgate’s side were in sparkling form at the Khalifa International Stadium and goals from Saka and Raheem Sterling put them in complete control before half-time.
Saka, 21, netted again after the interval and, although Mehdi Taremi struck twice for Iran, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish completed the demolition.
There will be far sterner tests to come for England as they bid to win their first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup.
But this was a welcome step in the right direction for Southgate, whose team arrived in Qatar on a six-match winless run that triggered scathing criticism of the Three Lions boss and his perceived negative tactics.
The only concern for Southgate was the sight of Harry Maguire being replaced in the second half after being checked for a potential head injury.
England play their second match against the United States on Friday and conclude their Group B fixtures against Wales on November 29.
Just hours before kick-off, England revealed captain Harry Kane would not wear a rainbow-themed ‘One Love’ armband after the Football Association and several other European countries dropped their campaign in support of LGBTQ rights.
Because the armband was not a FIFA-approved piece of kit, it was reported any player wearing it would be booked — a risk England were apparently unwilling to take.
The match also took place against the background of turmoil in Iran after months of female-led demonstrations sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish origin who was arrested by the morality police in Tehran.
Iran’s players refused to sing their national anthem in apparent support for anti-government protesters.
Having reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 before losing to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, England are desperate to take the last step to silverware in Doha.
Southgate had urged his team “play on the front foot” and they responded in style, after initially finding their rhythm disrupted by a long delay when Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand smashed into team-mate Majid Hosseini.
Despite being in no state to continue amid fears of a concussion, the bloodied Beiranvand played on before finally being substituted.
England eventually penned Iran deep inside their own half and Bellingham delivered in the 35th minute.
Sterling found Luke Shaw on the left flank and his cross was perfectly weighted for Bellingham, who looped a fine header into the far corner.
Playing for Birmingham in the Championship just two years ago, the Borussia Dortmund star’s goal made him England’s second youngest scorer at a World Cup behind Michael Owen.
Eight minutes later another of England’s gifted prodigies doubled the lead.
Maguire headed down a corner and Arsenal forward Saka swivelled to lash a superb left-foot finish into the top corner.
Sterling put the result beyond doubt with his first goal at a World Cup in first-half stoppage time.
Bellingham fed Kane, whose pin-point cross was volleyed home by Sterling with the outside of his boot.
Saka made it four in the 62nd minute when he shuffled across the Iran area before stroking his shot past Hossein Hosseini.
Taremi fired into the roof of the net to reduce the deficit three minutes later.
Rashford’s cool finish in the 71st minute, 49 seconds after he came on, was followed by Grealish’s 90th-minute tap-in.
Taremi struck from the penalty spot with the last kick of the game after a shirt pull by John Stones, but the margin of victory reflected England’s total dominance.