Team USA players share emotional embrace with Iran’s Saeid Ezatolahi

DOHA, Qatar – Saeid Ezatolahi cried.

He had given everything, and this time it wasn’t enough. As the final whistle at the Al Thumama Stadium signaled a 1-0 victory for the United States, there was nothing left for the Iranian defensive midfielder to do. So he sat down on the ground, deep in the night of Qatar, buried his head in his hands and let the tears fall.

Seconds later, he felt a large arm around his shoulder. It was Josh Sargent, the US forward, who had been dueling him during a first half in which the Americans desperately chased a goal until one was scored after 38 minutes through Christian Pulisic.

Sargent knelt down next to Ezatolah, hugged him and offered some words of kindness and sympathy. Soon after, US substitute Brenden Aaronson noticed the scene, saw the anguish on the Iranian player’s face and approached as well. Like DeAndre Yedlin.

Tim Weah joined them. As he approached, Weah’s face changed from one of bright delight to something more solemn. As Ezatolahi tried to pull herself together, Weah grabbed her hands and pulled her to her feet, before hugging her and whispering in her ear.

“I think it’s more than just football,” Weah told me as he left the stadium to head back to the team’s headquarters in Doha. “I think the United States and Iran have had so many issues politically and I just wanted to show that we are all human beings and we all love each other.

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“I just wanted to spread peace and love and let him know that we come from different backgrounds, we were raised differently. He’s still my family, he’s still my brother and I love him just like the boys I grew up with .”

Unless you’ve been camping, hibernating or doing a tech detox last week, chances are you’ve noticed the intense depth of political subplot surrounding the clash with Iran that ultimately clinched second place in Group B and sent Gregg Berhalter’s side into a round of 16 meeting with the Netherlands.

But whatever the discussions were during the week, whatever the questions the players had to answer that had nothing to do with the sport of soccer, the Americans understood the pain of the loss. They’ve felt it, more times than they care to remember.

Not on a stage like this, not yet at least.

“I could feel the emotion from him on the ground,” Aaronson said. “It’s difficult, it’s a difficult time for a lot of things. You put your heart and soul into it and I think he had a great game as well, and a great tournament from Iran. It’s hard to see that from a player . All you want to do is go and comfort them and tell them everything is going to be okay. It’s just a human thing.”

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Aaronson, Weah and Sargent are all 22 years old. None of them had ever met Ezatolahi. The United States should be proud of its men’s soccer team for what it did in Tuesday night’s triumph. And, perhaps even more so, for what he did next.

They weren’t the only ones offering some comfort. There were handshakes throughout before the team headed to the locker room, as well as a few pats on the back. Ezatolahi received more attention from the Americans because he was so visibly devastated. He has had a club career that has taken him to Russia and Denmark and the Qatar league. He felt, quite reasonably, that this current generation of the Iranian team had a unique chance to achieve something special.

For Sargent, seeing Ezatolah’s tears gave him a lump in his throat and his emotion grew. Even talking about it later, his voice cracked a little and he will remember that part of the night as much as anything that happened during a frantic 90 minutes.

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“I just really feel for every team,” Sargent told me. “Obviously it’s a big tournament, no matter who it was, seeing people upset like that affects me in a different way. It was on my way to where the team was anyway, so I thought I’d say something nice and encouraging.

“Everyone is human, of course. We’ve all worked to get to this important point in our lives. This is the pinnacle of everyone’s career. I know it’s not an easy situation when you lose.”

And so ends this whirlwind World Cup chapter for the Americans, with the knockout rounds offering a fresh new opportunity. In many ways it is a completely new tournament, both in format and pace.

They continue to show resilience and determination, attributes worthy of any athlete in the biggest competition of their careers.

And a side of compassion, too, which may not win matches – but deserves our applause nonetheless.

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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.

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