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

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DOHA, Qatar – Saeed Ezatolahi cried.

He had given it his all, and this time, it hadn’t been enough. As the final whistle at Al Thumama Stadium marked 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 grass, in the middle of the Qatar night, 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 American forward, who had dueled with him during a first half in which the Americans desperately chased a goal until one arrived in the 38th minute through Christian Pulisic.

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

Tim Weah joined them. As he approached, Weah’s face changed from beaming delight to a more solemn one. As Ezatolahi tried to recover, Weah grabbed his hands and pulled him to his feet, before hugging him and whispering in his ear.

“I think it’s more than 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 a lot of political problems and I just wanted to show that we are all human beings and we all love each other.

“I just wanted to spread peace and love and show him that we come from different backgrounds, we grew up differently. He’s still my family, he’s still my brother and I love him just as much as boys with who I grew up with.”

Unless you’ve been camping, hibernating or technologically detoxing for the past week, chances are you’ve noticed the intense depth of the political subplot surrounding the clash with Iran that ultimately decided second place in Group B and send Gregg Berhalter’s side to a round of matches. 16 meeting with the Netherlands.

But whatever the discussions during the week, for many questions the players had to answer that had nothing to do with the sport of soccer, the Americans recognized the pain of defeat. They’ve heard it, more times than they care to remember.

Not in a scenario like this, at least not yet.

“I could feel the excitement from him on the floor,” Aaronson said. “It’s tough, it’s a tough 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 for Iran. It’s hard to see that from a player. All you want to do is go comfort them and tell them it’s going to be okay. It’s just a human thing.”

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

They weren’t the only three who offered some comfort. There were handshakes all around 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 opportunity to achieve something special.

For Sargent, seeing Ezatolahi’s tears brought a lump to his throat and his own emotion welled up. Even talking about it later, his voice cracked a little, and he’ll remember that part of the night as much as anything that happened during a frantic 90 minutes.

“I really feel for any team,” Sargent told me. “Obviously it’s a big tournament, whoever it was, seeing people get upset like that hits 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.

“Everybody’s human, obviously. We’ve all been working to get to this important point in our lives. This is the pinnacle of everybody’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 new opportunity. In many ways, it is a completely new tournament, both in format and pace.

They continue to have demonstrated resilience and determination, attributes worthy of any athlete in the biggest competition of their career.

And also a side of compassion, which may not win games, but deserves our applause.

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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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