This saga, like many great ones, began with a disagreement between a father and a son. The father loved soccer – had been a professional goalkeeper back in Portugal – and wanted his son to follow suit. The son wanted nothing to do with the sport.
"He had a tremendous passion and energy in the art of goalkeeping and in football in general,” says Dan Gaspar. "Being born in the States I rejected that. I rejected learning the Portuguese language because I wanted to be purely an American and I rejected the game of soccer."
Yet more than four decades on, the son is off to his second consecutive World Cup. After going to South Africa as goalkeeper coach of Portugal in 2010, he will hold the same job for Iran in Brazil next summer.
Today, Gaspar is bilingual, a dual-national and even speaks like a Portuguese, the heritage to which he owes his long and astonishing and meandering career. He mills his arms about as he talks over dinner in his native Hartford, Connecticut, pounding a hand on the table for emphasis every now and then. He explains the teenage turnaround that would chart out his life: "I wanted to play football and wanted to play basketball. But my body didn’t grow with my ambitions. So I thought, well, let me give soccer a try."
Theirs was a proudly Portuguese household. English wasn’t allowed at the dinner table. Dan had to read Portuguese textbooks to his father Emmanuel. "I despised every moment of it," recalls the son, now 57. "But if it hadn’t been for his persistence, I would never have had the chance to work for the Portuguese national team." And when he announced that he was willing to convert to soccer, the sport of choice in his parents’ native land, his father got to work.
Dan was already 15 by the time he started goalkeeping. Emmanuel took him to the beach and drilled him hard in the arts of the position. "He was the best coach until one day I lost gratitude," says Gaspar. "He took me to a park and started shooting at me and I didn’t react. He said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Dad, you can’t beat me anymore.’ He packed up the balls, put them in the bag, got in the car, drove away and forced me to walk home, which was like 45 minutes away. He never trained me again."
Gaspar regrets his youthful hubris now. "He had more to give and I prevented him from giving it to me," he says. "But he gave me enough that I knew this is what I wanted to do at some level."
He’d absorbed sufficient knowledge to become a good goalkeeper. Gaspar made the Senior Bowl at the University of Hartford and played some semi-pro soccer here and there. But he knew in his heart that his ceiling was no higher than that of a journeyman. Yet he’d inherited enough of his father’s passion for the goalkeeping craft to want to make it his vocation anyway. For the first two years out of college, he worked a sales job while running camps and clinics before becoming a goalkeeper coach.
His career, which was a long grind until then, turned a corner in 1993 when he was named liaison to the Portuguese delegation at the U.S. Cup. He met Carlos Queiroz, then in his first spell as Portugal head coach. Queiroz arranged for Gaspar to coach the goalkeepers of Portugal’s under-17 national team during a camp. He even got to run the senior national team’s netminders for a session.
In spite of immense skepticism from the local press over the American, Gaspar proved his worth and has been by Queiroz’s side, off and on, ever since. In 1995, he followed the head coach to Sporting Lisbon. Then they went to the Japanese league, Major League Soccer’s MetroStars and the South African national team. In 2002, Gaspar joined Portugal’s staff (without Queiroz) and then spent time with Benfica and FC Porto — giving him the rare honor of having coached for all three of Portugal’s mega clubs. While Gaspar was head coach of his Hartford alma mater back home from 2005 through 2011, Queiroz called him back to Portugal for the 2010 World Cup preparations and tournament as well. And then they set off for Iran in 2011.
"The Iran experience is a bit different," says Gaspar. "It’s a national team in virtual isolation from the world, yet there are 75 million people scratching and clawing the back of our shoulders in desperation of qualifying for the World Cup. Out of all the countries that I’ve worked in — I can say this without any doubt — I’ve witnessed the most passionate soccer fans."
As an American living in Tehran, Gaspar says he has always felt safe, welcome and respected. But the logistical complications of working in a country living under a severe economic blockade from most of the Western world made theirs a tricky job. And then there’s the scrutiny from the local press, which rivals that of any country in the world. When Iran’s first-string goalkeeper suddenly retired and his understudy got injured, the newly promoted third goalkeeper Rahman Ahmadi was criticized on television to the point where his wife grew so anxious watching the broadcast that she had to be hospitalized.
Most all of the players are active in the Iran Pro League, a technical but slow one, as players are quick to go to ground. "It’s very theatrical, but it’s bad theater," says Gaspar. "So we tried to eliminate that on the national team." There was a softness about the players. Gaspar’s goalkeepers, for example, lacked the stomach to take control of their box. And they so prized sportsmanship that they would forsake a goal-scoring opportunity in order to play the ball out of bounds when an opponent was down.
But challenges were overcome, and with an improbable 1-0 win in South Korea on June 18, Iran reached only its fourth ever World Cup. Under Gaspar’s tutelage, the goalkeepers conceded just two goals in eight games on their way to winning Asia’s Group A. Ahmadi was named man of the match in the clincher.
As chance would have it, the win came just three days after Iran elected a moderate president to replace the antagonistic hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Hassan Rowhani has spoken of a reconciliation with the West after a decade of bluster and threats of developing nuclear weapons.
The Iranians look like they will make their return to the international community. "I think as people, they were very proud of their nation on an international level," says Gaspar. "Although sports transcend politics, we can’t deny the fact that winning and losing does create a certain mood in the country. As we won, we created a certain energy that was very, very special."
Next summer, they will take on the world with two Americans in their midst – assistant coach Omid Namazi is also a U.S. citizen – once unthinkable given the political climate.
"Now that we’ve qualified, I’m glad I took that leap," says Gaspar. "I’m a citizen of the world, that’s how I view myself. I’m curious; I’m adventurous. I like to take journeys. Who knows, I might be on Mars after the World Cup trying to develop elite athletes. That’s the type of career that I’ve chosen."
Or maybe his father chose it for him. Either way, the son has come good.