England tyros Bellingham and Saka shine as Three Lions thrash Iran 6-2 in opener
The Beatles would probably have never imagined their 1968 hit song Hey Jude being belted out by thousands in the Middle East.
But that was the scene at the Khalifa International Stadium on Monday afternoon, as England got their World Cup campaign off to a winning start with an emphatic 6-2 thumping of Iran, with young starlets Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka shining brightly.
Star man Bellingham, for whom “star boy” would probably be a more fitting title, was serenaded by the English fans with their rendition of Hey Jude. The 19-year-old was the youngest player on the pitch but underscored his special talent with a hand in half of England’s goals.
His presence in midfield – in place of more defensive-minded choices Jordan Henderson or Kalvin Phillips, who are both struggling for fitness – was also the spark that the England engine room had sorely been lacking. Bellingham was the catalyst for England’s strong finish to the first half, during which they scored three goals in just over 10 minutes.
After an obdurate opening period delayed by lengthy treatment to Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand for a head injury – he was eventually substituted – England began to carve out chances in front of goal.
Midfielder Mason Mount swept his shot inches the wrong side of the upright and into the side netting from close range on the half-hour mark. Two minutes later, defender Harry Maguire saw a header off a corner kick crash off the crossbar.
Bellingham broke the deadlock in the 35th minute, ghosting into the box to meet left-back Luke Shaw’s cross with a glancing header that looped into the far corner of the goal. It was his first international goal in his 18th appearance for his country, and made him England’s youngest World Cup goalscorer since Michael Owen in 1998, two years before he was born.
The Borussia Dortmund midfielder, who has been linked with a big-money move to Liverpool, Real Madrid, City and Manchester United, did not let up after finding the net, and just moments later was at his typical battling best at the bye line, preventing the ball from going out for a goalkick to the Iranians.
Bukayo Saka, another England starlet, then doubled England’s lead with a fine volley that clipped the underside of the crossbar, before Bellingham’s drive created another goal.
After Saka was unceremoniously tugged back in the middle of the pitch, Bellingham galloped onto the scene to seize the ball for the advantage before the referee blew for a freekick, and charged forward, playing Harry Kane through with a deft flick. England skipper Kane then sent in a glorious cross for Raheem Sterling to finish with aplomb to send his team 3-0 up at the break.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz made a triple substitution at the start of the second half, hoping for a change in fortunes, but 21-year-old Saka added a second in the 62nd minute thanks to a slight deflection off an Iranian shin.
Mehdi Taremi then pulled a goal back for the Iranians after stealing in behind Maguire to lash a strike home in the 65th minute. But England substitute Marcus Rashford restored England’s four-goal advantage in the 71st minute after just coming on for Saka.
There was still time for Bellingham to make another contribution, playing Callum Wilson through behind the Iranian defence to square the ball for Jack Grealish, who finished easily in the 89th minute. But Iran pulled a goal back late through a Mehdi Taremi penalty, which was awarded after a VAR (video assistant referee) check in a game that saw a total of 27 minutes of time added on.
The game also featured political statements by both sets of players.
Iran’s players stood stoic and silent during the team’s national anthem, in apparent solidarity with anti-Government protesters, who have taken to the streets of Teheran for the past two months following the death of a 22-year-old woman while in custody of the country’s morality police. Their supporters, which made up the majority of the 45,334 inside Khalifa stadium, also whistled loudly as the anthem was being played, and roared loudly after it ended.
England’s players, meanwhile, became the first ones at the World Cup to take a knee, a gesture against racism and inequality. However, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it act happened for a brief few seconds as the stadium announcer counted down the final 10 seconds before the game kicked off.
Hundreds of supporters were also said to have missed the act due to a ticketing app issue which was later resolved.