No other side is so severely stalked by the spectre of a scrutinising media as the English. Photo: Supplied
Fifa president Gianni Infantino has spent the last week begging the world to focus on football, not politics. Among other cartoonish arguments, he has insisted that criticism of Qatar is hypocritical, insinuated Europe should be as liberal with employing migrants and admitted to being bullied as a kid for his red hair — hence he knows a thing a two about discrimination.
The sumptuous irony, served up by England on Monday afternoon, is that the lack of football talk might just be what football needs to flourish.
No other side is so severely stalked by the spectre of a scrutinising media as the English. But liberated from the usual exaggerated microscope of pre-game analysis, they played their best football for a year. Free-flowing, confident and decisive.
“Auntie” BBC made the remarkable decision to not broadcast the opening ceremony and run migrant horror stories on repeat instead. Everyone else was busy mulling the will-he-won’t-he idea of Harry Kane wearing the OneLove rainbow armband. (He did not).
Gone were the debates over who should start at right-back, conducted with a ferocity that suggested the start of World War III rested on the outcome. No spit-flying skirmishes between Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher milked to get viewers. We weren’t even reminded about how much Jack Grealish costs every hour.
Gareth Southgate was left to set up his team in relative peace. And it showed.
Within minutes Harry Maguire launched himself at the ball, hitting the post and symbolically shaking off a two-year public relations nightmare. When Jude Bellingham found the net with his own header soon afterwards, it was clear England were in a rhythm, one they refused to relinquish all game.
Raheem Sterling flitted about with the intent of his prime City days. His brazen outside boot finish for the third goal belied the interminable criticism he has faced for his Chelsea performances. Likewise for club teammate Mason Mount, who patrolled tirelessly in front of the opposition backline, always hungry to make himself available.
When Marcus Rashford came on he immediately began to dance through the defence like a man uninhibited by the media hell in which any Red Devil permanently resides.
And then there was Bukayo Saka. Sublime, effortless Bukayo Saka. The criminal abuse he endured after his penalty miss at the Euro 2020 final is now emphatically shaken off.
The whole team has put the pain of that game behind them. Or perhaps they just haven’t been reminded by the press how they should feel.
Iran’s defiant stand
Iran do not share the same luxury as the English. At home the nation is still in uproar over the death of 22-years-old Mahsa Amini. Protests continue to rage under the banner “Woman, Life, Freedom” in what might be the most important moment for the country since the 1978 revolution.
The world wanted to know how its football stars would respond. The answer was with defiance. Shoulders locked and stone-faced, the players stayed mum during their national anthem.
The gravity of that action can’t be overstated. The Iranian regime is notorious for its severe treatment of dissidents. Every member of that squad, and their families, now face an uncertain peril. One far more consequential than the yellow card Kane would have received for donning a rainbow.
Either because of trepidation or an unwillingness to play for the flag, Iran delivered a non-performance.
Qatar’s rendition as an Ecuadorian mop the day before was expected — they’re a terrible football team. But Iran has legitimate credentials. This is an outfit filled with quality players and in Carlos Queiroz are governed by an experienced, wily coach.
England may have sizzled, but their opponents wilfully made no effort to douse the flame. Perhaps Infantino is right after all — football and politics don’t mix well.