Manager Gareth Southgate could hardly have wished for a better start to this Group G clash in Volgograd, where his side capped a start displaying skill, verve and energy with an early goal from their captain.
But the officials managed to top the insects as England’s biggest irritant as Ferjani Sassi netted from a controversially awarded penalty that somehow was not followed up by spot-kicks at the other end as the video assistant referees ignored the manhandling of Kane.
However, what Southgate’s men lack in experience they make up for in spirit with Tottenham striker Kane nodding home at the far post to clinch a dramatic late victory that sent their hardy travelling support wild.
It is the first time England have opened a major tournament with a win since 2006, but it did not need to be this hard given Kane directed home an 11th-minute opener.
Bold, direct and hungry in attack, Southgate’s men were then hit by a sucker-punch as referee Wilmar Roldan pointed to the spot after Kyle Walker swung an arm in the box.
Sassi fired home and frustration grew as the VAR did not interject after Kane was dragged to the deck. He also failed to do so from a similar incident at the start of the second period.
Jesse Lingard hit the post in between those controversial incidents, but chances dried up in a testing second half before Kane’s stoppage-time heroics won it for England.
It was an ending that epitomised the spirit that has built within the England camp.
Southgate entrusted nine World Cup debutants at the sparsely filled Volgograd Arena and was rewarded with an amazing start.
Lingard and Harry Maguire had early attempts before Raheem Sterling somehow failed to end his 983-day wait for an international goal by turning wide at the back post.
Tunisia goalkeeper Mouez Hassen required treatment after hurting his shoulder during the latter opportunity and was forced off in the 15th minute by which point England had found a way past him.
Ashley Young’s corner was met by a powerful John Stones header, which Hassen denied superbly only for Kane to pounce and turn home his first goal at a major tournament.
Jordan Henderson attempted to add another and Lingard then wasted another opportunity after Young bent in a cross.
Maguire saw a header kept out with Tunisia on the back foot, but cumbersome moments at the back gave the North Africans hope.
Sassi saw an attempt from the edge of the box go wide via a deflection before referee Roldan raised eyebrows.
Walker jogged away after ushering Fakhreddine Ben Youssef away from a cross, but the defender’s use of an arm led the Colombian to point to the spot.
The amazement of those in red was matched in the technical area as Walker was booked and Sassi fired a low penalty just out of Jordan Pickford’s reach.
It was a sucker-punch that could have been compounded had more sloppy play been capitalised upon as England became a shell of the side that started so superbly.
They continued to shake as half-time approached, but they could easily have gone in ahead.
Kane was fuming after being dragged to the deck by Sassi at a corner. Tunisia managed to clear and somehow escaped VAR.
Just before the break Lingard’s bright but wasteful first half was completed by beating Farouk Ben Mustapha to the ball only for his effort to come back off a post.
The second half started with Yassine Meriah wrestling Kane to the deck at a corner, but that was again ignored by the officials in the stadium and watching from afar.
Those flashpoints will be analysed in depth after a match that England were now approaching with a blunt attack.
Kieran Trippier and Young failed with free-kicks as England displayed a worrying lack of creativity, but they made up for it with their never-say-die attitude.
Maguire nodded on a corner to the far post and Kane was there to glance home, to the delight of all connected to England.
Former Sheffield United and Hull City defender Maguire said England had been prepared for a difficult game.
He commented: “It was tough out there, they were a tough opponent. The first half we should have been out of sight, but we gave away what we feel was a soft penalty. We said at half-time we knew we would get a lot of chances.”
Maguire felt Kane should have been awarded a penalty in the second half. He said: “I think it was as much of a penalty as the one they got.”
England: Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Henderson, Trippier, Lingard (Dier 93), Alli (Loftus-Cheek 80), Young, Sterling (Rashford 68), Kane. Unused substitutes: Rose, Vardy, Butland, Welbeck, Cahill, Jones, Delph, Alexander-Arnold, Pope.
Tunisia: Hassen (Ben Mustapha 15), Bronn, Ben Youssef, Meriah, Maâloul, Skhiri, Ben Youssef, Sassi, Badri, Sliti (Ben Amor 74), Khazri (Khalifa 85). Unused substitutes: Benalouane, Haddadi, Bedoui, Khaoui, Khalil, Mathlouthi, Srarfi, Chaalali, Nagguez.
Referee: Wilmar Roldán (Col).