Well, that was unexpected. After the cold, cold theater of Qatar 2022’s opening gameelite sport reimagined as a despot’s light-show, something remarkable happened on Monday afternoon in Doha.
As night fell over the vast, swooping Khalifa International Stadium (all these World Cup structures are vast and swooping; unless specifically told otherwise, assume vast and swooping) England and Iran produced something that felt jarringly real, oddly warm, suspiciously authentic.
Against all odds at this dislocated World Cup, a football match broke out. Albeit one shot through with its own layers of intrigue, and indeed pathos and horror.
First the fun part. England were excellent in this group B opener: eager, fluent and fancy-free against a poor Iran team. A 6-2 victory is England’s most thrillingly unbound start to any tournament ever. It almost feels a bit too much. Steady, chaps.
History tells us stodgy, cautious stuff, cardigan-football is the way to go here. The 1966 World Cup kicked off with 0-0 draw against Uruguay so tedious the Guardian match report contains a whimsical digression on the writer’s urge to drift off to sleep in the second half.
Instead England produced something that felt a little transgressive in this most controlled of stages, tightening their grip in a bruising first half, before freewheeling downhill in the second with their feet up on the handlebars. Jude Bellingham, only 19, was sensationally good in central midfield, even against opponents who provided all the high-grade resistance of a beaded curtain. Bukayo Saka was spiky, sharp and adorably relentless.
Victory leaves England in a position to drive through this group and on to the agonies to come. Better opponents than these will test this fun, peppy version, and indeed Southgate’s own will to retain a progressive midfield. No matter. This, also feels like football.
Because of course there were layers here too. Welcome to Qatar 2022, a World Cup so contorted by wider push and pull you can almost feel the political actors at the side of pitch shunting their avatars about the turf with long wooden paddles.
Much will be made of Fifa banning England from wearing the bespoke armband of tolerance during this game. Harry Kane may take some flak for failing to press the point and insist. In reality he deserves our sympathy.
This has become a power-play between England, Fifa and the Qatari leadership. England’s players have been very good on these issues. Kane himself is an unaffected and hugely committed advocate of the rainbow campaign. He doesn’t have to be like this. It just comes naturally , in a way it doesn’t to, say, the celebrity popinjay David Beckham. Kane is, most definitely, not part of the problem.
Indeed, if this game deserved to commemorate anything it was perhaps the deaths of two people five years apart. Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran’s morality police and died in hospital days later in September. Her crime was a breach of the country’s strict dress rules. Her death was a spark for the ongoing popular uprising against the regime.
Zac Cox is an Englishman who died in January 2017 after falling 40 meters from rigging while installing a catwalk. This happened right here, in this same Khalifa Stadium. An English coroner has since described the working conditions that caused his death as “chaotic, unprofessional, unthinking and downright dangerous”.
Cox is significant in other ways. His death is one of the three – yes really: three – that the Qatari government has been willing to acknowledge as actually related to this vast vanity project. Other estimates put the toll at more than 6,500. It could be argued there is a note of shared significance to both deaths. Both feel like reminders that the real divide, so starkly present at this Pharaonic sporting super-show, is between the powerful and the powerless.
This week Fifa’s morally invertebrate president, Gianni Infantino, gave a speech that attempted to paint his World Cup as a marker of a grand struggle between the bright new world and corrupt old Europe, with Infantino himself the Mandela at its centre. In reality Infantino has presided over a World Cup staged in a repressive state that has feasted on those who built its palaces, and has barely wagged a finger at Iran’s regime in the lead up to their appearance here. This is not an east or west thing. It’s a power thing.
With this in mind perhaps the most significant element of the afternoon was the sight of the Iranian players refusing to sing their own national anthema brave and powerful gesture.
There were some calls for England to boycott this game with the intention of shaming the dictatorship, but this is to misunderstand the dynamic.
The football team is not an extension of Iran’s leaders, but is in fact the opposite, seen as an amplifier for freedom, group expression, modernity. It is no coincidence women have been banned from football grounds since 1979. The regime fears this thing, with its spontaneity and its sense of collectivism.
Iran’s support duly kept up a drum-walloping din through the second half, even as England glossed the scoreline. And this is already the strangest of World Cups, a place where it is possible to nod approvingly at the improved staggered positioning of the England midfield; while also drinking in the joy of the gathered Iranians, a small note of victory in the wider battle of football against the enemy.