FIFA World Cup 2022: Take a bow and a Knee

Express News Service

CHENNAI:  It took England about as long to get on the scoresheet in their opener against Iran as it did for their first press conference of the tournament to warm-up. Once they did, the gap between Asia and the rest of the world, in terms of football or anything else, was plain to see. No longer a team of upstarts, Gareth Southgate’s side carry the weight of the kingdom’s colonial legacy and are products of it. Not many would have predicted an eight-goal opening encounter. But, just as Qatar were outmatched in every respect by Ecuador on Sunday, so too were Iran. Yet, in so many ways, the game reiterated the tired cliche that is FIFA’s plat-du-jour “Football Unites the World”. It does, until it doesn’t. 

Football aside, politics was as much on the menu as anything else. Much as FIFA might claim sport exists on a plane all by itself, real life tends to disagree. With an almost fully-fit squad at his disposal, Southgate sat at the main media centre at Qatar’s national convention centre alongside Harry Kane and tried to make the best of it. When asked about taking a knee — to protest systemic racism — the former international was unequivocal. No matter what the Premier League and its clubs might decide, this England team believes that the World Cup is a stage like no other and that making the point at every opportunity still carries weight.

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On their opening night, as they have on several occasions since he has taken over as head coach, the England of today demonstrated that playing together, and protesting together, is not just for the optics. That this team and this country belongs as much to Jack Grealish as it does to Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, Raheem Sterling and anyone else who might have the privilege of wearing the shirt. And, for at least as long as they are on the pitch, that point will not be lost. And it makes even the staunchest critic of British imperialism question the idea of, “anyone but England.”

On the other side of the pitch, the Iranians chose to make their own point, in their own manner. In stark contrast to the Ecuadorians the day before, the normally passionate Team Melli stood silent, and motionless, as the nation’s national anthem played out on the stadium’s PA system. In a world of movement and rhythm, the stoic silence said as much as it did not. The people of Iran, much like normal, working people around the world, are struggling to find utterance. Sometimes keeping quiet is the only way to breathe, they seemed to say on Monday at the Khalifa stadium in Doha.

From a footballing perspective, the expression of being alive was stifled, perhaps reflecting how Carlos Queiroz’s side felt on the inside. Usually poised, skilled, disciplined and physical, Iran looked the opposite of England. When a reporter brought up concerns about the protests in Iran at the England press conference, Southgate chose to deflect. But in his deflection was also an acknowledgment of the rock and the very hard place Iran’s players find themselves in. Results of football games don’t always reflect reality. Today’s silence, and scoreline, did both.

The group, of course, offers its own set of dynamics. England issued the warning. Wales will seek to follow later, after we go to print. The US, so far on the other end of the political spectrum, find themselves in a unique situation: the outsiders. Unlike their women compatriots the US men’s national team, when it does make it this far, doesn’t really belong.

On the pitch they will seek, against Wales and later on in the tournament, to change that perspective. How much success they have will boil down to politics as much as footballing acumen. In this group, as in any other, they might find sympathy, but little support. The game against Iran on November 29 will be an expression of this fact. Don’t bet on it, but expect the Melli to be singing their hearts out that night, as much in support of the people they represent as their silence did tonight.

Which brings us back to England. Southgate’s side have announced their intent, and their credentials, as challengers. Whether it’s coming home or not might be a different debate, but football has been singing about the World Cup going to England since 1966. If a nation as small as Qatar, in the middle of the desert and with no footballing legacy to speak of, can host an event of this magnitude, then perhaps this England side is perfectly poised to change the tune from hopeful to triumphant. And it could be fun to watch.

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