AL RAYYAN – Marcus Rashford dropped to his knees and pointed up to the sky.
The England forward had just scored against Wales at the World Cup, starting off a 3-0 victory that sent his team into the round of 16.
His celebration, he said, was in tribute to a friend who recently passed away after a long battle with cancer. It could have also been in celebration of working his way into the starting lineup in Qatar.
“Moments like this, this is what I play football for. The biggest moments, the best moments,” said Rashford, who started his first game of the tournament. “I’m happy we are going through to the next round of the tournament because I have massive ambitions for this team and I think we can play even better than we did today.”
Rashford scored two goals at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, making him the co-leading scorer at the World Cup with three goals — the same as France striker Kylian Mbappe and two others. Phil Foden, another England player who made his first start in Qatar on Tuesday, got the other.
Rashford played at the last World Cup in 2018 and also at the 2020 European Championship, but the 25-year-old Manchester United forward was considered to be fortunate to make England coach Gareth Southgate’s squad for this year's tournament.
Ever since his miss in the penalty shootout loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, Rashford has been going through a turbulent period in his career, compounded by injuries. He and teammate Bukaya Saka, both of them Black, were racially abused after missing their penalties in the shootout at Wembley Stadium.
“It has been a challenge for him,” said Southgate, who also led the team to the World Cup semifinals four years ago in Russia. “I went and saw him in the summer, had a big chat with him and he had some clear ideas on things he felt he needed to think about.
“You can see with his club there has been happiness in his performances and that has shown itself on the training ground. We have a different version (of him) completely to the Euros. That’s great for him and for us.”
In Qatar, Southgate opted to leave Rashford and Foden on the bench in the first two matches against Iran and the United States, starting with Saka and Raheem Sterling up front alongside captain Harry Kane.
Rashford came on a substitute in the 6-2 victory over Iran and scored one of the goals. Foden played 19 minutes in that match.
Against the United States, England was held to a 0-0 draw with Rashford again coming in off the bench.
The lineup changed for the final Group B match against Wales, and both Rashford and Foden took advantage of their time on the field.
Rashford put England in the lead with a free kick in the 50th minute, and followed it with that tribute to his late friend. Foden added the second only one minute later, and Rashford made it 3-0 in the 68th.
The win guaranteed England first place in the group. The team will next face Senegal in the round of 16 on Sunday.
Wales, which was playing at the World Cup for the first time in 64 years, finished last in the group and was eliminated. The United States ended up in second place and will next face the Netherlands, while Iran finished third and was also eliminated.
It may have been captain Gareth Bale's last match for his national team.
The former Real Madrid player had to come off the field at halftime because of a hamstring injury, but Wales coach Rob Page said he expects Bale to continue.
“He wants what’s best for the team. He understands that and he knew if he had gone back out he would have probably played at about 70%,” Page said. “When you are playing against a team like that you can’t carry anyone.
“I don’t think it will be the last time we see him in a Welsh jersey. There’s games starting again in March in the Euros (qualifying) and we want to get off to a flying start. We will see him in a jersey.”
Kane won the Golden Boot as the World Cup’s leading scorer four years ago in Russia, but he has yet to find the net in Qatar.
Southgate is coaching England at a third major tournament, and he has navigated the group stage successfully each time. England reached the semifinals at the World Cup in Russia, and then went all the way to the final at Euro 2020.
The team hasn’t won a major trophy since its lone World Cup success in 1966 at home.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports