“I just try to be a good person because if everyone had that mindset then, yeah, you’d have world peace,” Antonee Robinson says as he remembers his reaction when he comforted Ramin Rezaeian a few minutes after the USA had knocked Iran out of the World Cup last November. The heartfelt embrace between two defenders from very different countries went viral as Robinson consoled and hugged a sobbing Rezaeian for a long time.
In a setting as divisive and discriminatory as Qatar, Robinson’s warmth and humanity not only helped Rezaeian but turned the vitriolic world of social media into a briefly unified haven. His empathy was striking because, before their opening game against England, Rezaeian and his teammates had refused to sing the national anthem in protest against state oppression and violence towards women in Iran.
Their pointed silence was dangerous but it inspired Iran’s fans to continue other forms of protest throughout the tournament. At the end, after Iran had lost narrowly to the USA and failed to qualify for the last 16, Rezaeian was inconsolable until Robinson pulled him close.
On a cold but sunlit day at Fulham’s training ground, Robinson, who was born in Milton Keynes and raised in Liverpool before qualifying for the USA through his father, reflects on all he and Rezaeian shared: “When you peel back the layers, we’re all very similar as people. We’ve all got loved ones, we’re all just trying to get by, make people proud, provide for the ones we love. Whether or not we have different ideals and ideologies I’d say the majority are good people. And in that moment you don’t even notice cameras. You’re just seeing another guy in a lot of pain.”
Robinson looks up as he remembers the narrow 1-0 win over Iran, who had probably endured more external political pressure than any other nation in World Cup history. Iran came close to equalising and Robinson shakes his head. “It was nearly me,” he says, comparing himself to Rezaeian. “If they’d scored he would have been hugging me and I’d have been the one crying.”
He laughs and it is possible to see the other side of Robinson – the 25-year-old footballer who still asks everyone he meets to call him Jedi, as if he really is a Star Wars warrior, and performs magic tricks which amuse his teammates and also go viral. But was he aware of the political backdrop for Iran’s courageous players? “Vaguely, but we don’t speak too much about politics. It’s all about game preparation because we’re not politicians.”
Robinson also offered sympathy to Iran’s Abolfazl Jalali, who was distraught and on his knees at the final whistle. Christiane Amanpour, the venerable CNN anchor, praised Robinson for displaying “humanity without borders” but the left-back is more low key. “I knew the efforts those [Iran] lads had put in and so very quickly it came into my head to give my condolences. I had more of an embrace with [Rezaeian] and I was telling him: ‘You’ve made your family, your loved ones and your country proud.’ I didn’t see it that I’m American and he’s Iranian. He was just another lad who had just battled against me for 90 minutes.”
Did Rezaeian say anything in reply? “Yeah, he spoke pretty good English. He congratulated me and said: ‘Thank you’ and ‘Good luck’. But it was mainly just crying, to be fair.”
We laugh before Robinson becomes more serious again. “After the game he messaged me – which was a nice touch. They obviously took risks [politically] that my players didn’t have to take. We don’t face the same penalties. I’m not going to pretend I know the ins and outs of Iran but I do know they’re standing up against something that gives them far more consequences than I’ve ever faced. I can only commend them for being there for their people.”
Robinson remembers that when he returned to the dressing room “my phone just blew up with it. I became really emotional and the lads were consoling me. I’m not particularly emotional. I’m usually laid-back, chilled, but sometimes it comes out in bursts. The enormity of the situation, our achievement and dealing with injuries culminated in this burst of emotion.”
Robinson describes himself as a “natural pessimist” who has faced many disappointments and obstacles. And so the realisation he had made an impact at the World Cup felt almost overwhelming. “One hundred per cent. I’ve had enough setbacks to expect the worst but hope for the best. Even if I’m going on holiday, and I planned it, I don’t believe I’m going to get there until I’ve landed.
“It was the same for the World Cup. I got through the Man United game [Fulham’s last before Qatar] but even on my way to the airport I still didn’t believe I would play in a World Cup. I got to Qatar and it was like: ‘Well, I’ve got a week of training so I don’t know if I’ll play.’ It wasn’t until I’d actually played the first game that I could think: ‘I’m settled now. I’ve played in the World Cup.’”
It has been a long journey for Robinson. He was never regarded as a star at Everton’s academy and even when he was close to being offered a professional contract, and then on the verge of the first-team squad at Goodison Park, he sustained two serious injuries which sidelined him for many months. He was eventually loaned to Bolton and then sold to Wigan when, to his utter surprise in January 2020, his agent revealed that Paolo Maldini wanted to sign him for Milan.
Robinson initially refused to believe him. But when Maldini, one of the greatest defenders in football history, called him, Robinson finally understood the interest was real. “I played away at Swansea and the next day I got a call saying: ‘You’re flying to Milan tomorrow to do your deal.’ I then had Maldini on the phone and he was talking me through it. The fact it was Maldini, and he was trying to bring me into the club, was a big compliment. He had seen enough of me to say he was excited to work with me and he really believed that I could develop into a good player.”
Maldini and the main Milan executives welcomed him and everything was looking bright until Robinson began his medical. “I was in hospital doing loads of tests and scans on my knees and back. They gave me a max exertion test on a Wattbike and were asking if I’d ever had any issues with my heart. I said: ‘No’ but then they sent me to another hospital to do another ECG and when they got the results they sent me to Milan’s headquarters. My agent’s there with Maldini and all the higher-ups of Milan and I’m expecting to sign my deal.
“But they said: ‘We can’t do a deal because something’s flagged up with your heart.’ It was deadline day and it would take a minimum of three days to find out the problem, so they couldn’t risk signing me. They were all talking so much but I’m just sat there staring at the floor and thinking: ‘Of course it’s not happened.’”
It was only later that the wider consequences sank in and Robinson began to worry about his health. “I was having ectopic heartbeats, which is basically an insufficient heartbeat. Up to 5% is OK but I was having double that. It was making my heart dilate, which means it was overworking and growing in size. It could have approached failure if it hadn’t been caught. So that [Milan] medical gave me the chance to catch something I didn’t even know I had.”
Robinson was due to have surgery in March 2020 but Covid delayed the operation. While he waited Robinson was advised to stop drinking coffee and, a few months later, “when they went to do the operation they didn’t see any more insufficient heartbeats. They came to the conclusion that my heart’s sensitive to caffeine and I just needed to cut out coffee. Two weeks later I played my first game in six months against Huddersfield and it was a big relief.”
His heart condition was “sorted” and Robinson passed his medical when signing for Fulham in August 2020. His delight in playing for a club who have surpassed expectations this season, and are seventh in the Premier League, is obvious. An ankle injury and a suspension mean that he has missed just three of Fulham’s 21 league games this season.
“We’ve always said from the start of the season that the goal is to stay in the league and we’ve definitely got a big buffer of points to feel comfortable. It’s nice to be able to look at the teams above us rather than teams below us.”
Fulham play Chelsea away on Friday night in a west London derby between such contrasting clubs. Chelsea have just spent more in the January window than the combined amount of transfers in La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1. Can a more modest club such as Fulham really compete for a place in Europe next season? “It definitely could happen. If we replicate our form in the first half of the season we give ourselves every chance. But the manager [Marco Silva] is very good at making sure we don’t look too far ahead.”
Robinson chose his own nickname when he was five years old but most men still call him Jedi. “It’s more a guy thing and my two sisters wouldn’t call me Jedi. They’d call me Antonee. So girls, apart from my mum and fiancée [Darcy], wouldn’t normally call me Jedi. But [Darcy] always calls me Jedster.”
What does Silva call him? “He’s a foreign coach, so it’s last names: Robinson. He’s a very encouraging manager and I briefly worked with him when he was at Everton and I was in the under-21s. I trained with him a few times for the first team.
“I got sent out on loan and then sold while he was at Everton because he didn’t see a pathway for me into the first team. So when he first came to Fulham I was thinking: ‘Oh, he’s already made up his mind about me.’ But he’s come here and done the same with everyone, which means that whoever does the best job and is the best fit is going to play. He’s got a very good philosophy of keeping the ball, attacking, being positive. He really suits me.”
Robinson, as Jedi the magician, appears to be a hugely popular member of the Fulham squad. His card tricks, while telling amusing stories, again saw him become an internet sensation. “That first trick blew up on social media in pre-season,” he says. “I learnt that trick when I was about 15. We always have cards with us on trips so I did it for the lads. They made me do it again another night and got the coach and staff over to watch while they filmed it. I’m sweating, nervous, but I did it. The tricks are just random things that grab my attention and if it looks achievable then I want to do it and learn a skill. It’s fun to be able to wow someone quickly.”
Whether lighting up a room with a dazzling card trick or wowing the world with his simple empathy during the World Cup, Robinson, the Jedster, has a knack of spreading magic and warmth wherever he goes.