In the past, I’ve found it easy to root against Imperial teams, but that calculation gets complicated as those teams change. Paris-born star Kylian Mbappe is the son of a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother. Canadian Alphonso Davies was born in a refugee camp in Ghana. Twelve of the 26 players on the US team from the 1994, 1998, and 2002 teams combined were black.
One of them, Sergino Dest, was born in the Netherlands to a white Dutch mother and an American father whose ancestry was traced to Suriname. On Tuesday, in the 38th minute of the game, Dest headed the ball to Christian Pulisic, considered the best player in the country, who knocked it into the goal, giving the US a 1–0 lead.
“USA!” The crowd around me chanted, exchanging high fives and shouts. I cheered too, raising my arms in triumph and pride for the country my Filipino elders immigrated to.
When the Iran-US game started, I counted myself as one of three people of color in a bar filled with about a hundred people. Then, early in the second half, two more open seats took up next to me, NYU graduate students Basel Heba Elfeky and Billy Strickland in Boston for a physics conference. I quickly realized that Elfeki was rooting for Iran. He expressed it quietly under his breath at first, gradually rising in tenor as the game intensified in the final minutes with the US clinging desperately to its lead. While the rest of the bar groaned over a penalty called for the US, he pumped his first. As the rest of the bar applauded for the US corner kick, he shook his head.
“Going to the U.S., it just doesn’t feel right,” said Elfeky, who grew up in Egypt and moved to the U.S. for college. “They have a lot of money. And the men make more than the women, even though the women are very good. Then you have Iran, who are totally weak.
Strickland, who grew up in LA and is of partial Japanese descent, said he would support the Japanese team over the US if they played each other. Elfecki said he always rooted against the US men’s soccer team.
“At the end of the day, they play a very boring game,” he said of his tactical style.
In the closing minutes, the U.S. cleared an Iranian shot that looked like it would tie the game, and Elfeki let out a “Goddamnit.” When the final whistle blew, sealing the US victory, he sighed, shrugged and said, “It was a good game.” Both teams played hard, helped each other off the grass and displayed a camaraderie that led people to say that sport transcends politics. On Instagram PostUS player Tim Weah called Iran’s players “an inspiration” for how they “showed so much pride and love for their country and their people”.
Elfecki carried the frustration known to any fan forced to accept that justice rarely prevails in sports. While others around him took celebratory shots of whiskey, he and Strickland threw on their jackets and backpacks and left. Soon Iran’s players will also come home to face what awaits them.●