Iran coach wants politics off the football field

As long as the players steer clear of politics, a combination of

Persian pride and American spirit is the recipe for success for

Iran’s national football team, according to coach Afshin

Ghotbi.

Iran has been in political turmoil since the crackdown on

opponents of the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud

Ahmadinejad in June 2009. That year, Ghotbi, an Iran-born American

who helped rejuvenate football in the country by taking leading

club Persepolis to the Pro League title in 2008, took over the

national team.

The 46-year-old coach, who was born in Tehran but grew up in

Glendale, California, has faced adversity during his tenure with

the national team. As an Iranian who lived abroad most of his life

and barely spoke Farsi when he returned in 2007 after 30 years

away, many were suspicious of his motivations and coaching

style.

Even the country’s political opposition had its doubts.

Why would Ghotbi, the former Los Angeles Galaxy assistant coach

and an assistant to Guus Hiddink when South Korea reached the 2002

World Cup semifinals, take up the daunting task of coaching a

national team that has been short of success in international

football since the declaration of the Islamic Republic 1979? And

why stay after the ruling regime had crushed a popular

uprising?

Because it was a tough job and one based in his homeland, was

his answer.

”I took the most difficult path,” said Ghotbi, who will end

his stint with the national team after the Asian Cup and move to

Japan as Shimzu S-Pulse coach. ”I felt working for my country will

give me an opportunity to influence people and give them hope in

the darkest moments, heal the pain and make people proud of their

country.”

Sports has the power to do that, he said, and there’s no better

sport to do it than football – as long as the players know the

national team represents all Iranians all over he world regardless

of their political views.

”Who am I to decide what the country should be doing

politically?” Ghotbi said. ”That’s why I went into sports. It

made life simple. It was just a ball, two goals and 22

players.”

However, it can get complicated, particularly when some of the

players on the national team bring their political convictions into

the game.

That’s what happened during Iran’s last World Cup qualifier

against South Korea. Just days after massive protests erupted in

Tehran following Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election, most of the

players took to the field with green wristbands in support of

opposition candidate Mir Hossain Mousavi.

While Iran fans at the match in Seoul cheered the national team

with protest chants of ”Death to the Dictator,” the symbolism did

not resonate well with the coach.

”It was a mistake and a very disappointing night for me,

because it took the concentration of our players away from doing

the job, which is to make people happy with performances and

victories,” Ghotbi said.

”Had the team won that game, Iran would have gone to the World

Cup,” Ghotbi added. ”That would have been the best thing for the

Iranian people no matter who they thought the president should have

been.”

Ghotbi restructured the team for the Asian Cup, bringing in

younger players to play the ”attacking and exciting football” he

developed during his coaching career.

”I have an Iranian heart, the spirit of an American and a

football brain of a Dutchman,” said Ghotbi, who is trying to help

Iran win a fourth continental championship.

Iran, which last claimed the Asian Cup in 1976, won Group C with

a perfect nine points after defeating defending champion Iraq,

North Korea and the United Arab Emirates in Qatar. The team plays

South Korea in the quarterfinals on Saturday for the fifth straight

time in the continental tournament.

Ghotbi said this time there will be no politics.

”We are athletes and we should concentrate on our job of making

people happy with our performances and victories,” Ghotbi said.

”The national team belongs to the people and from the head coach

and all the way to the ball boy, nobody should use it as a vehicle

to express their political views.”