The main event
After that strange opener between Qatar and Ecuador, with empty seats, an unusually elated home crowd and a feeling that the South Americans preferred to ease off the gas, England should be involved in the first real World Cup competition.
Carlos Queiroz is remembered on English soil as the coach who taught Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United how to defend. His Iran team are now following the same line and will look to make things difficult for Gareth Southgate’s men. Even if he has great affection for England’s players – “they are really brilliant, great and have a fantastic attitude all the time” – the gloom of the game cannot be ruled out.
History calls elsewhere. Monday’s opener deserves lower billing as Wales return to the World Cup stage for the first time since 1958, when they open against the USA at Al-Rayyan Stadium in a late game. The last goal in the World Cup final against Wales was scored by a 17-year-old Pelé in Gothenburg against a team whose perhaps best player was denied the red shirt. John Charles was missing due to injury, after suffering a terrible blow against Hungary in the group stage.
The modern contender for that tag of the greatest Welshman, Gareth Bale, is fit and ready to step onto the stage his entire career seems to have been building towards. It’s a career that includes five Champions League wins and twice being voted England’s PFA Player of the Year. He defines himself by the motto “Wales, Golf, Madrid, in that order”, and as his club career progresses, with loan spells at Tottenham and a move to Los Angeles FC, the list of priorities becomes more defined. “It’s probably the biggest honor we can have for our country,” Bale said on Sunday. “This is history in our country. Schools will stop watching our games.”
Wales are no strangers to major tournaments, Bale was a figurehead in their run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and they qualified for Euro 2020. Robert Page has been a stalwart Wales defender during an era of multiple disappointments with the national team and in charge of Northampton back in 2016. Having done what he calls “the hard yards” in his career, he is doing a great job to this day, expertly managing Bale’s fitness issues, having stepped in when previous manager Ryan Giggs’ legal problems made him unavailable.
Page is quietly appreciative of the history he is leading his team into. “All of a sudden it becomes real,” he said. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, will be in attendance, when many prime ministers have decided to stay away from Qatar. The Labor politician comes as Keir Starmer, the Labor leader, boycotts the tournament. “There is a difference in the responsibility of someone who is the first minister of a nation that has reached the World Cup final,” Drakeford explained. “It’s a different set of responsibilities than the leader of the opposition has.”
Hosts with the least (so far)
Qatar, unsurprisingly, became the first host nation to lose their first game. The opportunity for a fairy-tale path to the final seems somewhat unattainable for the home team. They never looked like challenging Ecuador, the 44th best team on the planet. They combined for 11 hits, the fewest since recording began (they started keeping statistics in 1966). That might explain why about a third of the crowd didn’t bother with the second half, opting to make a quick exit rather than enter a goalless 45 minutes of relatively boring time. Onward and upward.
No love for messages of support
A number of teams have made it clear for a long time that their voice will be heard in Qatar through the tape “OneLove”. Some said it was insufficient, an insignificant gesture in a sea of well-intentioned but powerless people trying to make their point about discrimination against Qatar. Fifa seems to think this is a pretty meaningful statement, so they could make sure captains are punished for having a brass neck to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community via a rainbow colored fabric strip. So much so that referee Raphael Claus may be forced to first penalize Harry Kane for wearing the armband against Fifa’s wishes.
Dewch ære, Cymru!
Along with the BBC and ITV, the UK has a third free-to-air World Cup option – S4C. The Welsh-language TV channel will show all Wales games and former player Gwennan Harries is part of the specialist squad heading to Qatar. “I can’t wait to go there and see Wales on the biggest stage in world football,” Harries said. S4C’s coverage will also include preview shows and a documentary about Wales’ previous trip to the World Cup, Bois 58.
Iran’s captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, issued a strong political message ahead of the match against England. Against the backdrop of escalating protests against the actions of the Iranian government, the AEK Athens left-back said: “We have to accept that conditions in our country are not good and our people are not happy. We are here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be their voice or that we shouldn’t respect them.” Human rights groups called for Iran to be kicked out of the competition, and in solidarity with those killed in the protests, Hajsafi added: “I would like to express my condolences to all the bereaved families. They should know that we are with them.”
Elsewhere, chaotic scenes broke out inside and outside the fan festival at Doha’s Al Bidda Park an hour before kick-off after organizers allowed too many fans to flood the venue. The hall has a capacity of 40,000, but at least twice that number of people tried to get inside. The police had to chase the angry fans out, and it took about 45 minutes to clear the excess fans from the area.
Follow global media
Jim Waterson followed the BBC’s coverage of the curtain raiser in Qatar, which focused on the treatment of migrant workers and homosexuals, plus corruption at Fifa, while the opening ceremony was relegated to online coverage only.
When the Qatari government decided to spend millions of pounds on an opening ceremony featuring Morgan Freeman, BTS’s Jungkook and hundreds of performers, it probably hoped it would be the moment the global media finally focused on football rather than human rights . What he probably didn’t expect was for the BBC to ignore the entire event in favor of broadcasts criticizing the treatment of migrant workers, highlighting FIFA corruption and discussing Qatar’s ban on homosexuality. And that’s only in the opening two minutes.
The Internet is responding
The golden goat after one game…
Some birds are not meant to be kept in a cage…
A rough start for official mascot La’eeba…
A player to watch
Jesús Ferreira The American center forward is an unknown name to European audiences, but that could all change this month. The 21-year-old scored 18 goals for FC Dallas last season to earn his place in Qatar and is expected to lead the line against Wales. The son of former Colombia international David Ferreira, he was selected for his ability to press defenders and create space – and if he can continue his scoring form in MLS, Ferreira could be a breakout star at this World Cup.
England v Iran (Group B, 13:00 GMT, BBC One) Neither team enters this opener looking particularly sharp going forward, and there may be more drama in the stands than on the pitch. How many England fans will turn up – paid or not – and will we see protests from Iran fans amid the ongoing political turmoil at home?
Senegal v Netherlands (Group A, 16:00 GMT, ITV) Originally scheduled to open the tournament, this eye-catching group game will come too soon for Sadio Mané. His former Liverpool team-mate Virgil van Dijk has sympathy – the centre-back is set to make his grand final debut aged 31 after missing Euro 2020 through injury.
USA v Wales (Group B, 19:00 GMT, ITV/S4C) Wales’ 64-year wait to play a World Cup game will finally end against a team three places above them in the world rankings. Gareth Bale is their imminent danger, but his club mate at LAFC, Kellyn Acosta, has a crude plan to stop him. ‘We have to kick him around the pitch,’ said the American midfielder.
Ferran Torres may be in a relationship with Sira Martínez, who happens to be the daughter of Spain coach Luis Enrique, but the Barcelona player insists there will be no awkwardness in their camp. “Not at all,” Torres said Sunday when asked if he felt the added pressure. “I think the coach and I know how to distinguish between when it’s a family and when we’re a manager and a player. I think we have to continue with it in a natural way, just like that, and we get along well.”