Dan Gaspar is a key part of Iran's qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014 despite holding a US passport
When Dan Gaspar walked out into the massive bowl of Tehran's Azadi Stadium on 16 October 2012, he was greeted by the roar of 100,000 Iranian fans. An athletics track separated the national team's goalkeeping coach from the stands but the eight lanes did nothing to prevent the noise from assaulting his ears. When he stole a glance into the chaotic mass that surrounded him on all sides, he saw tri-coloured flags everywhere. The Iranian men were out in force for the crucial 2014 World Cup qualifier against South Korea. They always came out in force.
In 20 years as a coach, Gaspar had found himself in the middle of passionate fan-bases from South Africa to Portugal. But this was something else entirely. The football field represents one of the few places—perhaps the only space— in which Iranians can express their emotions in public. "It's more than a game for them," he said. "It's an event. It's an opportunity for them to express themselves freely, to sing and chant in unison in a spirited way. I think for them that is extremely important. It's at the football stadium that they are allowed to behave and express themselves in that manner."
But football's significance goes beyond that. "The game is extremely important for the Iranian people, not only here but for the way the rest of the world views them," the 57 year old explained. "Football results are very important for them. The more successful the national team is, the prouder they become." A win over South Korea would have taken Iran level on points with South Korea at the top of their qualifying group at the halfway stage of Asian qualifying, with top two teams advancing to the World Cup, and the third-place finisher meeting the corresponding side from the other group to determine who would make the play-off against a qualifier from South America.
Getting to Brazil 2014 means everything to the Iranian people. Gaspar was in Tehran to help achieve that goal. He joined the Iranian staff when his mentor, Carlos Queiroz, took the job of head coach in April 2011. In some ways, it was just another gig on the endless cycle of international appointments — except that Gaspar was born in South Glastonbury, Connecticut, a little more than 120 miles from New York City. He holds a US passport in addition to his Portuguese one.
But Gaspar is not the only Iranian national team coach in recent history with a strong tie to the United States. His fellow assistant, Omid Namazi, was born in Provo, Utah. Although Namazi's family returned to Tehran soon after his birth, he moved back to the US when he was 18, went to college at West Virginia University, and had a long career with teams around the country between 1988 and 2005. Afshin Ghotbi, the man Queiroz replaced at the head of the Iran team, was born in Tehran but left with his father in 1977 and emigrated to the US. He lived in Los Angeles and attended the University of California, Los Angeles where he played for the Bruins and earned a degree in electrical engineering before embarking on a coaching career that has taken him around the globe.
Despite the tensions between the two countries and sanctions that have been in place since 1979, holding a US passport does not preclude a coach from working for the national team or club teams. That shouldn't be surprising, a spokeswoman at the Iranian consulate in New York explained. No one there would talk specifically about football in Iran, but she was quick to note that the conflict is between the governments, not the people. Iran's general population, especially the younger generation living in Tehran, is more open, liberal, and accepting than the western world realises. So is the city itself.
"It's a strange thing. We live in a country that we know is being suppressed by sanctions, but I don't have that sense of fear. I feel safe. I feel welcomed. I feel respected," Gaspar said. "If I wasn't listening to CNN or BBC, I would have no idea of the perception that Iran has throughout the world. Maybe we are isolated from that as a result of being football professionals, and perhaps we're not exposed to that type of political climate, but I've had no issues being a Portuguese-American."
Namazi, a former defender who was coaching at Semnan's Steel Azin before joining Queiroz's staff, agrees. "Tehran is a metropolitan city with a large population," he said. "Unlike the perception in some of the US, it's safe to live here. I have had no issues whatsoever. I have continued to work during the day and do some site-seeing when I'm not working. It's been fine living here," he said. "People here view the US as a country where people are given an opportunity to grow. It's a positive image."
The tense relations between the two nations do create the occasional logistical difficulty. From 2004 to 2007, Ghotbi served as an assistant coach with South Korea. They had to play an Asian Cup qualifying match in Iran, but the coach could not enter the country because he only had his US passport. The fact that he was born in Iran was not enough to gain him entry.
Having a second, non-US passport seems a requirement for employment as a coach with the national team. As Gaspar shows, it doesn't have to be an Iranian one, but it's highly unlikely that someone like the New Jersey-born and bred Bob Bradley, the former US national team coach who is currently in charge of Egypt, would land a job in Iran. "Being Iranian or Iranian-born made it easier," Ghotbi said, an opinion shared by Gaspar. "My sense is that would be a tremendous challenge for the federation to try to sell."
That said, the US passport in his pocket didn't prevent Ghotbi from landing the job, nor did it stop Gaspar and Namazi from being part of the staff that replaced him. But those ties to the US are probably not part of a larger trend. "I think it's a coincidence," Namazi said. "I don't read too much into it. Obviously, there have been a lot of people who have immigrated to the US at some point in their lives. Maybe that's the reason why there is a higher percentage of Iranian-Americans who have come back and tried to coach. But the next technical staff could be all from Brazil. It just has to be now that there is a staff that has experience coaching in the US."
And he's probably correct. At the end of the day, Namazi and men like him bounce around the globe, looking for jobs. They simply hope to do what they are hired to do: coach. "I have no political agenda," Gaspar explained. "As a result of my profession, I consider myself a global citizen. It's allowed me to open my mind. It's allowed me to experience different cultures. I think that's a valuable, valuable experience. More Americans should do it. It also allows us to appreciate where we come from, but at the same time understand that there are traditions, cultures, and things that you can be enlightened by." There football goes again, perhaps not explaining the world entirely, but certainly helping us understand bits and pieces of this planet a little bit better.
And, at its core, coaching is coaching is coaching, whether it's in the United States, Iran, or elsewhere. The job remains the same all over the planet: get the most out of your players and win. Queiroz, Gaspar, and Namazi have a difficult task since the quality of the Iranian league is not the best in the region, but the national team does have talent, including many players from Persepolis and Esteghlal, the two biggest clubs in the football-mad nation.
Sometimes, however, the country's tinderbox politics intervene. That was the case in 2009 after Ghotbi replaced Ali Daei, the team's all-time leading goalscorer and cap winner who moved into coaching after retiring in 2007. With three matches remaining in the final round of AFC 2010 World Cup qualifying, Iran needed strong results to clinch a berth in South Africa. They had three games in 11 days, away to North Korea and South Korea with a home game against the United Arab Emirates sandwiched in the middle. Ghotbi, who had taken over the team just 30 days before, led the squad to a draw in Pyongyang and a win in Tehran. A victory in Seoul on June 17 would have ensured qualification. The manager needed his troops to focus. But that wasn't possible. On June 12, the Iranian people voted in presidential elections. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won easily, but irregularities triggered protests in the country and worldwide. It was far from an ideal environment in which to prepare a team for a vital match.
"There were images on BBC and CNN of people being shot, things being burned, and rocks being thrown. It was really a difficult game to get everyone's concentration," Ghotbi said. "Without my knowledge, some players were wearing the green band [of protest] and some players didn't have the green band. That game became a difficult game to win even before it started. We gave up a goal in the 81st minute, and it was a 1-1 draw." Hours later, a draw between North Korea and Saudi Arabia eliminated Iran.
Ghotbi stayed on — "I decided that maybe the only thing that could really keep the peace and at the same time give people hope was football," he said — but resigned after falling in the quarter-finals of the 2011 Asian Cup. It was Queiroz's turn to try to return the national team to the World Cup, a tournament for which it has qualified three times (most recently in 2006, although their most famous result was the 2-1 win over the USA in 1998).
Gaspar and Namazi signed on for the challenge, a journey that started well as the team finished first in the third round and was drawn in the easier quintet for the final stage of qualification, favourites with South Korea to advance from Group A, which also included Qatar, Lebanon, and Uzbekistan. They began the campaign with a 1-0 victory over Uzbekistan and a scoreless draw with Qatar in Tehran. A 1-0 loss to Lebanon, Iran's first ever to the tiny country, was a major set-back. "That was a bitter defeat, one that we weren't expecting," Gaspar said. "Now we'll see what the true football fan of Iran is made of. When you're faced with this type of a result, we're curious to see how the people will respond. Up to this point, it's been a great honeymoon. We haven't lost. We've been through the qualification phases successfully. Now it's a test to see if we can stay united. The press has been very critical."
That was the stage as the coach walked into Azadi Stadium in the middle of October. The crowd passionately and openly demanded a result. A defeat at home to South Korea wouldn't have eliminated Iran from World Cup contention, but it would have been unacceptable in the eyes of the 100,000 strong.
Before kick-off, they chanted, they sang, they screamed. They expressed themselves. They kept up the noise throughout the scoreless first 45 minutes, as the head coach and his assistants searched for a way through South Korea's stout defensive wall. Then, after the break, disaster. The Osasuna midfielder Masoud Soleimani Shojaei, one of the few Iranians playing out of the country, picked up a yellow card in the 48th minute, then a second one eight minutes later. The crowd exploded in protest and despair. Iran, a man down, looked through. But Iran, spurred no doubt by the thousands of supporters, found a goal. Their captain Javad Nekounam, a 32-year-old midfielder for Esteghlal, picked up a deflected free-kick and slotted it home with a quarter of an hour remaining. The fans were still in a state of ecstasy when the final whistle blew on a 1-0 win. The coaches would coach another day. Drama doesn't care about international borders. As Gaspar, Namazi and others around the world are showing, neither, frequently, does football.