European heavyweights England and the Netherlands launch their World Cup campaigns on Monday as the tournament kicks into high gear in Qatar after a disheartening defeat for the hosts. Asian champions Qatar became the first home nation to lose their first World Cup match as Ecuador cruised to a 2-0 win on Sunday, with veteran striker Enner Valencia scoring twice. England, who play against Iran in Group B, will be desperate to start strong as they look to end their decades-long trophy drought after two near misses in recent years.
Gareth Southgate’s men made a surprise run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia before reaching their first major final in 55 years at the European Championship last year.
Despite his success as England boss, Southgate has drawn criticism for his perceived negative tactics and pressure has mounted after a poor run of results.
“The first thing a coach has to do is make sure (the team) can win,” he said. “Then of course you want to play football that gets people excited, that players enjoy.
“Our challenge is to give supporters a tournament that is memorable. We have taken them fantastically over the past two tournaments.”
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With tougher games ahead against the United States and Wales, England cannot afford a slow start against Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium.
England’s opener takes place against the backdrop of deadly demonstrations in the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s spiritual leadership has been rocked by more than two months of women-led protests over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish descent who was arrested by the morality police in Tehran.
Defense attorney Ehsan Hajsafi said: “They should know that we sympathize with them”, adding that “the conditions at home are not good”.
– Bale leads Wales –
In the other Group B match, the US will take on Gareth Bale’s Wales, who are playing in a World Cup for the first time since 1958.
Captain Bale said he hoped to inspire a new generation of Welsh footballers.
“Everyone has dreamed of it for so long,” said the former Real Madrid striker. “We’ve had so many close calls. To be the team that crossed the line was incredible.
“But more importantly, the best thing is to grow football in our country, to inspire another generation. By doing that, hopefully we will have a stronger national team in the future.”
The Netherlands will take on Senegal in group A, with the African champions missing their injured talisman Sadio Mane.
The Dutch team failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia in 2018, but the three-time number two is back under experienced manager Louis van Gaal, who led the team to the semi-finals in 2014.
“We have to believe in our qualities and ourselves and have confidence,” said Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk.
“We have a fantastic manager, an experienced manager. We have players who play at the highest level, the biggest clubs in the world.”
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse was optimistic about his side’s chances despite Mane’s absence.
“Of course we will not hide the importance of Sadio Mane for the Senegalese team – he is very important, a coach builds his team around his best players.
“But there is also a group here with experienced players, with young players who are ready to take it a step further. We have had to play games without Sadio Mane before.”
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