Iran coach wants to keep politics off soccer field

Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi says a combination of Persian pride and

American spirit will help Iran’s national soccer team – as long as

the players steer clear of politics.

Iran has been in political turmoil since the crackdown on

opponents of the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud

Ahmadinejad in June 2009. Ghotbi, an Iran-born American, took over

the national team that year to give people ”hope in the darkest

moments.”

”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.

The coach says he was ”disappointed” when seven of his players

wore green wrist bands during a World Cup qualifier in support of

an opposition candidate in that election. Iran lost the game to

South Korea.

Ghotbi says there won’t be any politics when the teams meet

again in the Asian Cup quarterfinal in Qatar on Saturday.

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

Glendale, Calif., has faced adversity during his tenure with the

national team. Many were suspicious of the motivations and coaching

style of an Iranian who lived abroad most of his life and barely

spoke Farsi when he returned after 30 years in 2007.

Even the country’s political opposition had its doubts.

Why would Ghotbi, the former Los Angeles Galaxy assistant coach,

take up the daunting task of coaching a national team that had been

without success in international soccer 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 based in his homeland, he

said.

”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 soccer – as long as the players know the

national team represents all Iranians 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.

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 focus will be on soccer when the team plays South Korea on

Saturday.

”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.”