The image that really struck me from the final moment of the World Cup match between the United States and Iran was the Iranian player lying on the ground, sobbing. You couldn’t hear him, but you could see the way his shoulders heaved slightly and rhythmically, as if he was trying to hid his grief under his arms even though he knew the cameras of the world were on him. I don’t know his name, and I didn’t see his face, but his anguish was obvious.
And in that moment, the rush of adrenaline and joy I felt at the victory of our national team faded away as I faced a more important reality: this Iranian player was headed home to a country that has no time for “best efforts.” While it’s unlikely he’d be killed because of his team’s failure to advance in the World Cup competition, it is likely he would be punished in some form or other.
On the other hand, said the asylum lawyer in my head, if he chose to defect, he’d never again see his family. That family, perhaps, might even bear the heavier burden of their son and brother’s failure or worse, his rejection of the mullahs. When I was preparing for a Venezuelan asylum case the other day, I read that the despotic South American dictator Nicolas Maduro punished family members for crimes allegedly committed by other people. Why would Iran be any different?
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The crushed figure on the soccer field stood in stark contrast to the jubilant American boys, dancing around as if each of them had just won the billion dollar Power Ball lottery. It was joyous and well-deserved, and yet it took place in another universe from the one inhabited by that single Iranian player. And my sympathies and attention were with him, not the dancing Americans.
This is not to take anything away from the victory of our own. Soccer has become an important sport for many Americans — not this one, but many — and making a strong showing on this international stage is important. It’s more than important. It’s glorious.
But most of the young men who worked so hard to advance to the next elimination round, dressed in blue and with the ability to wear rainbows in their hair and tattoos on their arms, had normal lives behind them, and promising futures ahead. Few of them understood what it was like to live under the yoke of oppression, few could imagine the quotidian terrors that make up a normal week, month, year in Iran. Few of their sisters were in danger of being murdered for wearing their hair the wrong way, few of their mothers in danger of being murdered for protesting on behalf of their daughters. None, in fact.
The first glimpse I had of the Iranian team was when they stood in unison, and silence, as their national anthem was played. The courage that it took to defy the mullahs was infinitely greater than the bravado of a Gen Z teacher on TikTok talking about all of their genders and preferences. These young men had already lived centuries, and suffered calamities that only the most empathetic American can comprehend.
The rush of adrenaline and joy I felt at the victory of our national team faded away as I faced a more important reality: this Iranian player was headed home to a country that has no time for “best efforts.”
My asylum work has fine tuned my instincts whenever I watch an international event where one of the participants comes from a totalitarian state. I do not see with the eyes of the Eagles fan wishing ill things on Aaron Rodgers and screaming at missed penalties. I see with the heart of someone who knows what it means to be in a space where rights are simply presumed to exist, and violations have consequences.
Watching that single Iranian player grieve on the field of his unfulfilled World Cup dream made me think of how I felt back in the 1970s, whenever an athlete from the Eastern Bloc nations failed to win a medal. As a child, I worried that they would be hurt when they went home, empty hands and fearful hearts. And I may very well have been right. I also remember watching Olga Korbut, that adorable Soviet sprite, grinning with joy at her medals. How, I thought, could someone from such a terrible place be so happy?
Perhaps it wasn’t true happiness, just some 50-year-old façade. Perhaps even Nadia Comăneci was pretending to be happy to return to Romania. Perhaps all of the German swimmers, women with the shoulders of Chuck Bednarik, were devastated to have to go back home behind the Iron Curtain.
But I know one thing for sure. The sadness that engulfed the Iranian player at the end of the World Cup match was anything but a façade. It wasn’t chimeric. It was the reality of a life that is harder, more brutal, more challenging, and darker than anything we can comprehend, we in the blessed west.
And it shows how life is not now, and never was, a simple game for those who drew the short straw of destiny.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and lifelong Philadelphian. @flowerlady61