Fifa president Gianni Infantino said on Saturday that it was time to stop talking about politics, and that “when the ball rolls”, everyone would focus on the football.
It has not quite worked out like that. Instead, Monday began with headlines about Fifa’s threat to punish European captains if they went ahead with plans to wear a pro-inclusion armband in their opening matches. The group of teams, including England, Wales and the Netherlands, backed down but only after issuing a few terse words about world football’s governing body.
The Dutch football association said: “Together with the other countries involved, we will take a critical look at our relationship with Fifa in the coming period.”
England’s opponents Iran also made headlines off the pitch. The team remained silent during the pre-match national anthem, seen by many as a protest against the regime in Tehran. Fans in the crowd hissed and jeered throughout the anthem. Afterwards Iran coach Carlos Queiroz called on fans to leave politics out of the World Cup so that the players could focus on football. “Let the kids play the game,” he said.
One to watch on Tuesday: The champions return, but without Benzema
On Tuesday, we will get our first look at the champions, France, as they get going against Australia in the late kick-off game. Les Bleus begin the tournament as third favourites, behind Brazil and Argentina.
History is not on their side — no country has won a World Cup back to back since 1962, while four of the past five champions have gone on to lose in the first round at the following tournament.
France go into this competition with just one win in six and hit by injuries to a number of key players. Midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté are both out, as is Karim Benzema, who was recently voted the best player in the world. Doubts linger over a few others.
The loss of Benzema is a huge blow. At 34, the Real Madrid centre forward is in the form of his life. Last year he bagged 27 goals in 32 Spanish league appearances and notched up 12 assists. In the Champions League — which Real won again — he scored 15 times in just 12 matches. No wonder he won the Ballon d’Or.
It might be a stretch to find a silver lining, but could all these setbacks for France prove a blessing in disguise? The French have a history of following success with overconfidence. With a makeshift midfield, and absent Benzema, perhaps minds will be more focused. With Kylian Mbappé leading the line, France will still be daunting opponents for anyone.
Read Simon Kuper’s full preview of the France team here.
Tuesday’s fixture list:
Argentina vs Saudi Arabia, 10am UK time/1pm Doha time.
Denmark vs Tunisia, 1pm UK time/4pm Doha time
Mexico vs Poland, 4pm UK time/7pm Doha time
France vs Australia, 7pm UK time/10pm Doha time
Monday’s highlight: England canter to victory over Iran
Gareth Southgate’s men began this World Cup campaign in similar fashion to the way they began their previous one. England routed Iran 6-2 and would have matched the 6-1 scoreline from the opening game against Panama in Russia four years earlier were it not for an Iran penalty on the stroke of full time. In 2018, they went on to lose whenever they played anyone good, though.
Monday was a useful confidence-building exercise for a team that has lacked form. Arsenal forward Bukayo Saka, with two goals, was awarded man of the match, while Jude Bellingham ran the midfield with a precision and coolness well beyond his 19 years.
England looked assured and carried a threat throughout. But they will face better sides than Iran and will need to tidy up a few things if they are to mount a serious challenge this time around.
Read Simon Kuper’s full analysis of England’s win here.
England 6 Iran 2
Senegal 0 Netherlands 2
USA 1 Wales 1