Saka, Bellingham sparkle as England crush Iran 6-2

DOHA: England got off to a flying start at the World Cup by beating Iran 6-2 on Monday as their young stars Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka shone in Qatar. The Iranian players chose not to sing their national anthem before the match, in apparent support for anti-government demonstrations that have rocked their country for the past two months. The protests were triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in morality police custody in September. Amini, an Iranian of Kurdish origin, died three days after she was arrested in Tehran over an alleged breach of the Islamic republic’s dress code for women.

Despite a build-up to the game dominated by questions about the protests Iran made a dogged start before 19-year-old rising star Bellingham headed England into the lead after 35 minutes. Gareth Southgate’s side galloped to a 4-0 advantage at Khalifa International Stadium with two goals from man-of-the-match Saka and a fine Raheem Sterling strike, before Iran belatedly fought back with Mehdi Taremi scoring.

England put the result beyond doubt as substitutes Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish each netted, before Taremi scored a consolation penalty in deep stoppage time. Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said the unrest in Iran had put his players under enormous strain. “You don’t even imagine behind the scenes what these kids have been living in the last few days, just because they want to express themselves as footballers,” Queiroz said.

Rainbow armband ditched

England captain Harry Kane had been expected to wear a rainbow-themed armband for the game, but hours before kick-off, the English, German and five other European federations said they were abandoning the plans for the “OneLove” insignia. The armbands have been widely viewed as a symbolic protest against laws in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal. The seven teams said they felt they had no choice but to ditch the plan because of the risk their captains would be shown a yellow card or sent off on the orders of football’s world governing body.

“FIFA has been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play,” the federations of England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland said in a statement. They said they had been prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations because they had “a strong commitment to wearing the armband”. “However, we cannot put our players in the situation where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play,” they said.

Ronaldo plays down row

Cristiano Ronaldo insisted that his recent row with Manchester United would not overshadow Portugal’s preparations for their opening match with Ghana on Thursday. Ronaldo will spearhead Portugal’s attack at what will likely be his last World Cup, fresh from blasting United’s owners and coach Erik ten Hag in a TV interview. The 37-year-old has been reduced to a peripheral role at United this season and was suspended for a match after refusing to come on as a substitute against Tottenham last month. “I have no doubt that this recent episode, that interview, and other episodes with other players that happen sometimes, can sometimes shake the player but won’t shake the team,” Ronaldo told reporters at the Portugal camp. – AFP

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