Amid Disruptions, England’s Win Over Iran Was the Easy Part

DOHA, Qatar — England opened the first full day of the World Cup with an easy rout of Iran, but tensions tightened everywhere else, off the field.

The day after the opening ceremony for the much-maligned tournament and host, there were squelched protests and logistical nightmares. More than anything, it was made clear on Monday that FIFA would not indulge those who wanted to bring their causes to this event or to this country in the days and weeks to come.

Silent protests were quashed in different ways, first as FIFA opened the day by effectively banning the planned use of a captain’s armbands by some teams as a show of support for the kind of inclusivity that Qatar does not support.

In the stands, fans of the Iran team who showed silent support for the protest movement roiling that country were made to stash their Persian flags, seen as symbols for freedom seekers against the current regime, or turn their shirts of support inside out.

Still, there were gestures. English players knelt. Iranian players did not sing the national anthem. And in the stands, some Iranian fans sang the Persian anthem, a sound of protest aimed at the country’s theocratic government and its latest crackdowns on freedom.

There were more problems outside the stadiums. Thousands of fans on Monday found that their digital tickets had suddenly disappeared from their phones and could not be retrieved. That led to a crush of confusion and frustration before officials clumsily sorted out the mess at the stadium gates, partly by printing tickets and, in the end, letting people in without tickets to scan.

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is five hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

The tournament seemed most normal on the green grass of Khalifa International Stadium, the only one of the eight venues in and around Doha not constructed specifically for this event. (It was built in 1976 and renovated and expanded for the World Cup.)

England, a semifinalist four years ago, satiated the anxiety of its rabid fan base by crushing Iran, 6-2, powered by two goals from Bukayo Saka.

Bukayo Saka scored twice during England’s easy win.Credit…Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
England’s win brought cheers at the Red Lion Pub in Doha.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

England scored three times in the first half, quickly sucking any suspense from the match and allowing people to wonder further just what everyone is doing in Qatar and how to best show disagreement with that decision.

One way, planned for months by a coalition of European soccer federations, was through rainbow-colored armbands for team captains. England’s Harry Kane was expected to be the first of many to take the field wearing one, emblazoned with the words “One Love” and designed to show support for minority groups, primarily the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Homosexuality is a crime in Qatar.

But World Cup organizers took the additional step of announcing that such one-armed protests would result in a yellow card, and the teams, worried about the consequences, angrily backed down. Kane arrived on the field wearing a FIFA-approved blue one instead. It featured a heart and the words “No Discrimination.”

England did not let the occasion go gestureless. As it has the past couple of years in solidarity with protests after the killing of the American George Floyd, players knelt before kickoff. The gesture has since been seen as a broad way to raise awareness for social justice issues.

As they have at previous events, Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham and the rest of England’s players knelt to raise awareness of social justice issues.Credit…Lee Smith/Reuters

The game was a potential stage for another form of protest, especially for Iran, amid a movement sparked by the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody. She was accused of violating Iran’s hijab law requiring covered hair and loose robes for women. Protests, pushing mostly for more freedom for women, have destabilized the country in the two months since.

Iran’s players made a point of not singing the country’s national anthem before the match.

More obvious gestures could be found in the crowd. Some brought the flag of Persia, viewed as a symbol of protest. The flag looks much like Iran’s current flag, with its bands of green, white and red. But today’s flag has an Islamic symbol and phrasing; the Persian flag has a lion and a sun.

One man unfurled the Persian flag before the match and was made to surrender it. Those with shirts depicting the flag or any other anti-Iran messages were not allowed inside unless they agreed to remove the shirt or turn it inside out. It was unclear who directed security to take those measures.

But it did not stop some in the crowd from singing the words to the Persian national anthem.

Still others missed it all, having been stuck outside the stadium with tickets that magically disappeared from their phones in the hours before the match. Many reached the workers holding scanners outside the security checkpoints and found they had no tickets to scan.

Lines backed up. Frustration grew. Volunteers were helpless. Extra security was called in. Many fans were directed to a nearby trailer marked “Ticket Resolution Point,” which had few resolutions but soon a heaving and anxious crowd of its own.

Eventually, security officials directed some people through security, inside the fenced ring and the plazas that surrounded the stadium. That got them closer to their goal, but they still could not enter the portals of the stadium without a scanned ticket. They were directed to more “ticket resolution” trailers, where growing lines of fans seethed as kickoff neared.

FIFA acknowledged the problem without explaining it. “FIFA is working on solving the issue,” a statement read.

The online ticketing system malfunctioned on Monday, presenting problems for security officials and anxious supporters.Credit…Steve Wade/Associated Press

Among the many temporarily stranded was Calvin Stermer of California, who had six tickets for the match. They were linked to his Hayya card, a sort of online visa required by Qatar for foreign visitors to the World Cup. When he went to transfer them to friends on Monday to display on their own personal devices, as instructed, they were gone.

Stermer was trying to see two games on Monday — England-Iran in the afternoon and United States-Wales in the evening.

“I have paper tickets for U.S.A., so I’m happy about that,” Stermer said.

At kickoff, security officials scrambled to allow people in, asking merely for the email confirmation for their tickets and directing them past the scanners. (Somehow, they still announced a precise attendance of 45,344.)

By then, everything felt rather normal. England was winning, fans were cheering, and the World Cup had begun in earnest, with four matches a day for the next 11 days.

If only those fans who thought they might miss Monday’s first match entirely could have quenched their stress with a beer. But that is a different story of the World Cup.

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