DOHA, Qatar — It was a disappointing night for Iran. That’s what happens when you come out of a FIFA World Cup.
Hurts. That whole “heads held high/made us proud” thing can provide some balm at some point, but not at the final whistle. And sometimes never.
When the Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz whistled the end, the United States had defeated Iran 1-0. The Asian set was out. Many Iranians simply collapsed on the pitch, based on physical and mental exhaustion. Saied Ezatolahi, the emotional leader of Team Melli, stayed on the ground longer than anyone.
Ezatolahi is a defensive midfielder whose main job is to run, run, run and then win the ball and deliver it to players with style. His is not the position of glory; he is the role of the unsung warrior. He is 26 years old and has played for nine clubs in seven countries. From Denmark to Doha, from Rostov to Reading, from Madrid to Makhachkala, he is the emblem.
And yet, there it was. Because there is nothing like playing for your country and giving everything for it. The other 10 shirts he has worn were temporary; the Team Melli shirt can also be tattooed on his body. And as he lay there, crumpled to the ground, his chest heaving, what struck you was the obvious connection to the opponents who had just inflicted defeat on him.
Josh Sargent, limping, leaned over him, touching his shoulder, then his head, whispering to him. Moments later, it was Brenden Aaronson. They honored the fallen opponent. Timothy Weah came over, bent down with both hands, and helped him up. Weston McKennie walked up to Ezatolahi and hugged him.
You are hesitant to attribute too much power to sports. Partly because it’s hackneyed, partly because it’s corny, partly because the mantra “soccer unites the world” has been repeated far too often by villains of the sport. And yet, in that moment, particularly in her interaction with Sargent, you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved.
Nico Estévez, who was part of Gregg Berhalter’s coaching staff, highlighted his maturity against Iran.
Of course, in his case, as with all Iran players, the backdrop only served to make things more exhausting and emotionally punishing. His country is rocked by protests – for women’s rights, for workers’ rights, for ethnic rights – and the protests have been violently suppressed. Multiple outlets reported that the players and their families had been threatened if they showed solidarity with the protesters, an allegation that has been denied.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said that while the “dream is over”, he had never seen “a group of players who gave so much and received so little in return”. You suspect he wasn’t just referring to the exertion on the pitch, but the stifling yoke they’ve worked under for the past three weeks.
Ezatolahi captured it on the pitch, both during the game and at the final whistle. After sobbing in the arms of an assistant coach, he obediently walked toward the television cameras for the flashing postgame interview, even as the stadium DJ was blasting music in the background.
The warrior can now rest. The warrior can now heal. And maybe he’ll even find solace in the compassion and empathy shown by his opponents, from Sargent to Aaronson, Weah to McKennie. It’s the kind of solidarity that can sometimes only exist between warriors on opposite sides of the battlefield, warriors who know that, on another day, it could have been them.