In the past, I found it easy to root against the imperialist teams, but that calculus gets complicated the more those teams change. Paris-born star Kylian Mbappé is the son of a Cameroonian father and a mother of Algerian descent. Canada’s Alphonso Davies was born in a refugee camp in Ghana. Twelve of the 26 players on the US team are Black, as many as the 1994, 1998, and 2002 teams combined.
One of them, Sergiño Dest, was born in the Netherlands to a white Dutch mother and an American father whose ancestry traced to Suriname. On Tuesday, in the game’s 38th minute, Dest headed the ball to Christian Pulisic, a white American regarded as the country’s best player, who knocked it into the goal to give the US a 1–0 lead.
“U-S-A!” the crowd around me chanted, exchanging high fives and yelps. 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 that I was one of three people of color in a bar filled with close to a hundred people. Then, early in the second half, two more took the open seats next to me, Bassel Heiba Elfeky and Billy Strickland, NYU graduate students in Boston for a physics conference. I quickly realized that Elfeky was rooting for Iran. He expressed himself quietly at first, under his breath, gradually rising in tenor as the game intensified in its final minutes with the US desperately clinging to its lead. When the rest of the bar groaned over a penalty called on the US, he pumped his first. While the rest of the bar clapped for a US corner kick, he shook his head.
“Going for the US, it doesn’t feel right,” said Elfeky, who grew up in Egypt and moved to the US for college. “They have a lot of money. And the men make way more than the women, even though the women are so much better. Then you have Iran, who is a complete underdog.”
Strickland, who grew up in LA and is partly of Japanese descent, said he would support Japan’s team over the US’s if they played each other. Elfeky said he always roots against the US men’s soccer team.
“At the end of the day, they play a very boring game,” he said of their tactical style.
In the closing minutes, the US cleared out an Iranian shot that seemed bound to tie the game, and Elfeky let out a “goddamnit.” When the final whistle sounded, sealing the US’s victory, he sighed, shrugged, and said, “It was a good game.” Both teams played hard, helped each other up off the grass, and demonstrated the camaraderie that leads people to say that sports transcends politics. In an Instagram post, US player Tim Weah would call Iran’s players “an inspiration” for how they “displayed so much pride and love for their country and their people.”
Elfeky carried the disappointment familiar to any fan forced to acknowledge that justice rarely prevails in sports. While others around them took celebratory whiskey shots, he and Strickland threw on their jackets and backpacks and headed out. Soon Iran’s players would be home too, to face whatever awaits them.●