England captain Harry Kane abandoned the “OneLove” rainbow captain’s armband amidst fears of an instant yellow card from the referees at the FIFA World Cup, but his Iranian counterpart Ehsan Hajsafi and his colleagues risked a far scarier retribution by choosing not to lend their voice during the playing of their country’s national anthem.
The captain earlier had expressed solidarity with the persecuted protestors in his homeland and the brave and beautiful image of the 11 men standing grimly with the world watching on will be a moment to remember from this World Cup.
Their courageous display, however, didn’t stop England from running away with an authoritative 6-2 win at the Khalifa Stadium. While skipper Kane picked the easy way out, the sparks for England came from teenage brave hearts. Jude Bellingham, the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund protegee, was the first to find the net with a looping header over substitute goalkeeper Hossein Hosseini in the 35th minute.
Earlier Iran’s first-choice keeper Alireza Beiranvand suffered a concussion after crashing into a retreating Majid Hosseini while tipping away a dangerous Kane cross in the eighth minute. After a lengthy treatment, he tried soldiering on, but groggy and lead footed – sense prevailed – he was finally stretchered off in the 20th minute.
England’s second came in the 43rd minute with Bukayo Saka making a neat connection to send a bouncing ball thundering into the top right corner after Harry Maguire had headed down a corner from Luke Shaw. It was baby-faced Raheem Sterling, once considered the shining young light of English football, who added the third in the first of the 14 long minutes of injury time. Bellingham was the creator this time, manoeuvring his way past a few challenges to spread it wide to Kane inside the box – the skipper unselfishly played a low cross to Sterling, who thumped home England’s third.
In a mellower second half, Saka added his second and England’s fourth in the 62nd minute after Sterling drove past a heavy challenge to feed his young teammate. With still plenty to do, the Arsenal winger feinted past three defenders to score.
To the joys of Iranian fans – many of whom had protested earlier when the national anthem was played – and the neutrals, Mehdi Taremi scored in the 65th minute after Ali Gholizadeh sent a reverse pass his way. England, however, was not finished as substitute Marcus Rashford slotted in the next goal in the 71st minute with the sixth coming from Jack Grealish.
But there was still time for a late VAR drama and a consolation penalty strike for Taremi after John Stones was found guilty of pulling Morteza Pouraliganji’s shirt inside the box.