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By James Robson- When Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford last walked off the field at a major international soccer tournament, they were bombarded with racist abuse.
Three goals for England in the team’s opening match at this year’s World Cup was their immediate riposte.
Saka scored two before giving way to Rashford, who added another in the second half of England’s 6-2 rout of Iran on Monday.
The jubilant scene at the Khalifa International Stadium was in contrast to the tears shed following England’s penalty shootout loss to Italy in last year’s European Championship final. Saka and Rashford both failed to convert from the spot and were targeted on social media.
“It is a moment that has been with me and will be with me forever,” said Saka, who was only 19 during Euro 2020. “But I am so blessed and so grateful to have the coaching staff, not only here with the team at England, but also at Arsenal.
“My friends and my family put their arm around me along with my teammates and the nation supported me to help me get back to a good place. I feel that love from everyone around me.”
The win also provides encouragement for coach Gareth Southgate, who has faced the most troubled period of his England tenure over the last year. In a difficult buildup to the tournament in Qatar, he was booed after a 4-0 loss to Hungary in June and was humiliated by his own fans when they chanted, “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Hundreds of fans missed the start of Monday’s match because of an issue with digital tickets. When they eventually made their way to their seats, they witnessed an utterly dominant display from England.
Jude Bellingham’s first international goal opened the scoring in the 35th minute.
Saka then got his first of the match in the 43rd and Jamaican Raheem Sterling added another in first-half stoppage time. Saka scored his second shortly after the hour, but Mehdi Taremi pulled one back for Iran in the 65th minute.
Rashford struck six minutes later to extend England’s lead to 5-1, and Jack Grealish also stepped off the bench to score a sixth in the 90th. Taremi added another for Iran from the penalty spot deep in stoppage time after John Stones was penalized for holding Morteza Pouraliganji’s shirt in the box.
The game was delayed for several minutes in the first half when Iran goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand clashed heads with a teammate. He was eventually taken off the field on a stretcher with the score still 0-0.
His replacement, Hossein Hosseini, was left with the unenviable task of facing England’s potent attack.
The match had a total of 29 minutes of stoppage time, 15 minutes in the first half and 14 in the second.
After the match, Iran coach Carlos Queiroz pleaded with fans to support the team following apparent boos during the national anthem amid protests in the nation for women’s rights.
“All the Iranians in the stadium are welcome, and feel free to criticise,” he said. “Those who come to disturb the team with issues that are not only about football opinions are not welcome. They are just simple football boys. They have one dream, to play football. It is not their fault that the World Cup happens at the moment.
The moral is: Let the kids play the game. They want to represent the country, represent the people.”
Bellingham had not even made his senior debut by the time of the last World Cup in 2018. Now the Borussia Dortmund midfielder is one of the most coveted players in Europe and is expected to spark a major transfer battle at the end of the season. Monday’s performance is likely to see his reputation grow even more.
Southgate said Harry Kane was not injured despite concerns when he went down under a challenge in the second half and was later substituted.
“I think Harry is fine,” the coach said. “It looked a bad tackle, but he carried on and we took him off because we thought it was a moment when we could do that.”
England faces the United States on Friday and Iran takes on Wales. (Associated Press Sports writer)