DOHA, Qatar -- It was a night of gut-wrenching, intestine-curdling disappointment for Iran. That's what happens when you exit a FIFA World Cup. And no, it really doesn't matter if you bow out after outplaying the opposition or after throwing up a stinker, after a tight edge-of-seat affair or after being blown out.
It hurts. That whole "head held high/did us proud" stuff may provide a balm at some point, but not at the final whistle. And sometimes never.
When Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew the final whistle, the United States had defeated Iran 1-0. The last remnants of hope -- namely their furious appeals and imaginary VAR boxes drawn in the air after contact between Cameron Carter-Vickers and Mehdi Taremi deep into injury time -- had been dashed moments earlier.
Iran were out, 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.
Ezatolahi is a bruiser and enforcer, a blue-collar defensive midfielder whose main remit is to run, run, run, and then win the ball and give it to the flair players. His is not the glory position; it's the unsung warrior role. He's 26 and has played for nine clubs in seven countries. From Denmark to Doha, Rostov to Reading, Madrid to Makhachkala, he's the prototypical journeyman. Have boots (and bite), will travel. That's Ezatolahi. This is not the sort of man you expect to see sobbing. Cursing and breaking things? Maybe.
And yet, there he was: a shell of a man. Because there is nothing like playing for your country and giving your all for it. The other 10 jerseys he has worn were temporary; the Team Melli No. 6 shirt may as well be tattooed onto his body. And as he lay there, crumpled on the ground, chest heaving, what struck you was the connection that was so apparent with the opponents who had just inflicted the loss on him.
Josh Sargent, limping and with one bare foot, leaned over him, touching his shoulder, then his head, whispering to him. Moments later, it was Brenden Aaronson. Same spiel: honoring the fallen opponent. Timothy Weah went over, reached down with both hands and helped him up. Weston McKennie made his way to Ezatolahi and embraced him.
You hesitate to ascribe too much power to sports. Partly because it's trite, partly because it's cheesy, partly because the "football unites the world" mantra has too often been co-opted by the villains of the sport. And yet, in that moment -- particularly in his interaction with Sargent -- you'd need to be pretty stone-hearted not to be moved.
Of course, in his case, as with all the Iran players, the backdrop only served to make things more draining and emotionally punishing. Their country is rattled by protests -- for women's rights, for workers' rights, for ethnic rights -- and the protests have been met with violent repression. Multiple outlets reported that players and their families had been threatened if they showed solidarity with the protesters, an allegation that has been denied. Whatever the case -- and whatever the personal views of the squad -- these were young men tasked with performing on the world stage with the heaviest of hearts.
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 effort on the pitch, but the suffocating yoke they worked under for the past three weeks.
Ezatolahi embodied this on the pitch, both during the game and at the final whistle. After sobbing into the arms of an assistant coach, he dutifully trudged over to the TV cameras for the postmatch flash interview, even as the stadium DJ blared thumping music in the background and the FIFA-hired hype men (one for each team) shouted inanities to whip up 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 maybe even find comfort in the compassion and empathy shown by his opponents, from Sargent to Aaronson, Weah to McKennie. It's the sort of solidarity that sometimes can only exist between warriors on opposite sides of the battlefield, warriors who know that -- on another day -- it could have been them as empty, sobbing vessels.