MARTIN SAMUEL: Going over the top after Iran win? Ask Argentina!

MARTIN SAMUEL: Argentina’s shock defeat against Saudi Arabia shows England are NOT going over the top after putting six past Iran… tougher tasks will await, but it’s a start Lionel Messi and Co would have snatched our hands off for

  • England’s opening World Cup win over Iran was not to be sniffed at on Monday
  • Argentina’s loss against Saudi Arabia shows why we made a fuss of the victory
  • It was only the first game and England still have a long way to go in Qatar
  • But Lionel Messi and co would have snatched our hands off for a similar start 
  • Click here for the latest World Cup 2022 news, fixtures, live action and results

So that is why we do make a fuss when England put six past Iran in their opening World Cup game.

It could be a 2-1 defeat against Saudi Arabia.

It could be a draw. It could be a nail-biting wait for victory. It was none of those things for England. Does it mean the World Cup is in Gareth Southgate’s grasp? No, of course not. It is one game against Iran.

Yet Argentina’s defeat in Lusail on Tuesday showed what can go wrong, what often does go wrong, for significant teams and players at major tournaments.

England’s dominant opening World Cup win over Iran was not to be sniffed at on Monday

The narrative written in the stars — Lionel Messi lifts the World Cup in his 1,000th game — may still happen. Italy reached the final in 1994, having initially lost to Ireland.

Spain won it in 2010 having opened with a 1-0 defeat by Switzerland. Yet nowhere in Messi’s celestial journey was it considered he might go down to Saudi Arabia, and give the ball away for the equalising goal, too.

Suddenly, 6-2 against Iran — we will take that. Not least because, according to FIFA, Iran are the best team here from Asia. They are ranked above Japan, South Korea, Australia and Qatar. As for Saudi Arabia, they are apparently Asia’s weakest link, 51st in the rankings behind even the hosts. So England’s opener was not be to sniffed at — yet so many do. They wilfully misquote and misinterpret justified praise for a job well done, as bluster and jingoism.

Lionel Messi and Argentina’s humbling against Saudi Arabia shows why we made such a fuss

Argentina’s defeat on Tuesday showed what can go wrong for big teams at tournaments

They put caveats in for a victory that are never inserted in defeat. Terry Venables used to say that whenever England won a friendly it was because the opposition were not trying — yet nobody ever made that excuse for an English defeat.

It was never that England’s players were focused more on their clubs during the season, that they might be shielding for a big game, that a non-competitive fixture with Norway was treated more like a training session. When Sven Goran Eriksson met Venables having recently taken over, he asked if it was true the England manager was expected to win every game. Yes, Venables told him, it was. ‘But the friendlies, you can experiment, yes?’ Eriksson asked, hopefully. ‘No,’ said Venables. ‘You’ve pretty much got to win all of them, too.’

If anything, it is worse now.

An England manager can win his opening match by this country’s biggest margin in major tournament history, and will still be decried. It is only Iran, it is only one game.

Funny how no one spoke like that before kick-off. Early afternoon at the Khalifa International Stadium, Iran were considered dangerous, tricky, they had beaten Uruguay in a recent friendly, drawn with Senegal, they were ranked 20th in the world. England should beware. Harry Maguire was vulnerable to Porto striker Mehdi Taremi, coach Carlos Queiroz was a wise old head ready to outwit the limited Southgate and the Iranian squad were inspired by the protests back home.

There is still a long way to go, but Gareth Southgate’s team should be praised for the result

Then England won handsomely and, it turns out, Iran were useless. They were sapped by the pressure of supporting the protests. Their players were inept, Queiroz did not have an idea in his head, FIFA’s rankings are made up by four monkeys on a second-hand Olivetti. We want it all ways. 

Argentina 6 Saudi Arabia 2 and Messi might as well be handed the 2022 trophy this morning. Iran 2 England 1 and there would be calls for the manager to quit and the team to return on the next plane home to be pelted with rotten eggs. If any were available.

It does not mean England will win it. Southgate was not even greatly enamoured of the second-half performance. But it is a start — and one Messi and Argentina would have snatched our hands off for.

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