Following England’s 3-3 with Germany in September, which completed a winless UEFA Nations League A Group C campaign, Declan Rice reassured supporters that the Three Lions would come good at the FIFA World Cup finals.
And the West Ham United captain was true to his word on Monday as England swept aside Iran 6-2 in their opening Group B fixture in Qatar, with Rice himself covering every blade of grass in a deep-lying midfield role.
With ties against Wales and the United States – who drew 1-1 – to come, the Three Lions will look to build on their eye-catching victory over the three-times Asian champions and secure their place in the round of 16, where they could face an Ecuador side led by former Hammers striker Enner Valencia, who scored twice in his country’s 2-0 win over host nation Qatar on Sunday, the Netherlands or a Senegal team including Rice’s former teammate Cheikhou Kouyaté.
“It was a positive start,” Rice told the Evening Standard. “There were a lot of doubts about us before the tournament. There has been a lot of talk about us not winning in our last six matches. By our standards, with the players we have got, we know that it hasn’t been good enough.
“But this was a World Cup stage and you could see there was a fire in our bellies. We wanted to prove a lot of people wrong. People will say ‘it’s only Iran’ but they have had some good results at past World Cups. In September, they beat Uruguay and drew with Senegal.”
The 23-year-old’s disciplined performance – he completed 92 of 95 passes and made a team-high three interceptions – allowed partner Jude Bellingham to get forward, support the attack, score England’s opening goal and play his part in two more, and Rice was effusive in his praise of the Borussia Dortmund teenager.
“We have played together four or five times now” said Rice. “I said to him in the tunnel: ‘This is your stage, go and flourish. I’ll be there behind you to sweep up and give you the ball for you to go and do your thing.’
“I know my role in this team. I am there to stand in front of the back four, protect, get on the ball and move it around. I feel like we did that really well. We stuck to the game plan and, in the end, the spaces opened up. You saw the goals we scored with some really lovely play.”
Rice was also happy for another of England’s young stars, Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka, who silenced the trolls who abused him for his penalty shootout miss in the UEFA Euro 2020 final defeat by Italy with two well-taken goals at Khalifa International Stadium.
“It’s unbelievable what he’s done,” Rice observed. “It says everything about his strength of character. You saw what happened last summer, everyone was with him then.
“He is flourishing with Arsenal, he is playing with a smile on his face. You see him around the training ground, he is the happiest person around the place. We are all so happy for him.”