Iran’s Ezatolahi embodied the despair of the World Cup defeat

DOHA, Qatar — It was a night of heartbreaking, gut-curdling disappointment for Iran. This is what happens when you leave a FIFA World Cup. And no, it really doesn’t matter if you’re eliminated after an opponent’s overplay or after a stinker, after a tight seat affair or after an exit.

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It hurts. All that cheer up/made us proud stuff might be beneficial at some point, but not after the final whistle. And sometimes never.

When Spanish referee Mateu Lahoz blew the final whistle, the United States had beaten Iran 1-0. The last remnants of hope – the angry appeals and imaginary VAR boxes blown in the air after Cameron Carter-Vickers and Mehdi Taremi came into contact – had just been dashed.

Iran was outside and darkness had fallen. Many Iranians simply collapsed on the pitch, a function of physical and mental exhaustion. Saied Ezatolahi, Team Melli’s emotional leader, stayed down longer than anyone else.

Ezatolahi is a slugger, an enforcer, a defensive midfielder whose primary role is to run, run, run, and then capture the ball and give it to the flair players. His is not the position of glory; it is the unsung warrior scroll.

He is 26 and has played for nine clubs in seven countries. From Denmark to Doha, from Rostov to Reading, from Madrid to Makhachkala, he is the prototype of the journeyman. Got boots (and bite), will travel. This is Esatolahi. This isn’t the kind of man you expect to see sobbing. cursing and breaking things? Maybe.

And yet it was there: a human shell. Because there is nothing better than playing for your country and giving everything for it. The other 10 jerseys he wore were temporary; The Team Melli No. 6 shirt can also be tattooed on his body. And as he lay there, curled up on the floor, chest heaving, you noticed the obvious connection to the opponents who had just inflicted the loss on him.

Josh Sargent, limping and one bare foot, leaned over him, touched his shoulder, then his head, and whispered something to him. Moments later it was Brenden Aaronson. same game Honoring the fallen opponent. Timothy Weah walked over, reached down with both hands and helped him up. Weston McKennie walked over to Ezatolahi and hugged him.

They hesitate to attribute too much power to sport. Partly because it’s banal, partly because it’s cheesy, partly because the mantra “football unites the world” has too often been co-opted by the bad guys. And yet at this moment, especially in his interaction with Sargent, one would have to be pretty persistent not to be moved.

Of course, in his case, as with all Iranian players, the backdrop only served to make things more taxing and emotionally punishing. Your country is rocked by protests – for women’s rights, for workers’ rights, for ethnic rights – and the protests have been met with violent repression. Several outlets reported that players and their families had been threatened if they showed solidarity with the protesters, a claim that has been denied. Whatever the case – and whatever the crew’s personal views – these were young men who, with a heavy heart, were commissioned to appear on the world stage.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said that although the “dream is over”, he has never “seen a group of players who gave so much and got so little in return”. They suspect he was referring not just to the exertion on the pitch, but to the suffocating yoke they’ve been working under for the past three weeks.

Ezatolahi embodied this on the pitch, during the game and at the final whistle. After sobbing into the arms of an assistant coach, he dutifully trotted over to the TV cameras for the flash post-match interview, even as the stadium DJ belted out blaring music in the background and the hype people hired by FIFA (one for each team) roared nonsense to rouse the crowd in the echoing Al Thumama Stadium. The contrast between artificial, plastic vulgarity and genuine, visceral emotion was evident.

The warrior can now rest. The warrior can now heal. And you may even find solace in the compassion and empathy of his opponents, from Sargent to Aaronson, from 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—they could have been them as empty, sobbing vessels.

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