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Exiled Iranian coach aims for historic goal

By James Montague, for CNN
  • The coach of Iran's national soccer team is Afshin Ghotbi, an American citizen
  • Ghotbi left Iran before the Islamic Revolution, but couldn't return for almost 30 years
  • He was a former scout for Team USA, against Iran, at the 1998 World Cup in France
  • CNN spoke to him in Qatar ahead of Iran's Asian Cup quarterfinal tie against South Korea

Doha (CNN) -- For a man who had spent the first 13 years of his life growing up in pre-Revolution Iran, Afshin Ghotbi's first job in Iranian football was all about going back to basics: He had to relearn his mother tongue, Farsi, almost from scratch.

"Coming back to my roots, speaking very little Farsi, I had to communicate with my heart," explained the 46-year-old coach of Iran's national team, talking in a pronounced west coast American drawl. "The connection I made with the Iranian people was fascinating."

He has taken a circuitous and remarkable route to leading a side which is this month seeking to win its first Asian Cup title since 1976.

Ghotbi is an American citizen who left Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, having been exiled from his country and separated from his mother for almost three decades before returning to a hero's welcome of flowers, slogans and songs, hailed as the savior of Iranian football. He might not have understood exactly what they were saying, but the red carnations thrown at his feet told their own story.

Prodigal son returns to Iranian roots
2011 Asian Cup in Qatar

Now he takes charge of Iran ahead of Saturday's quarterfinal clash with South Korea hoping to not only break the country's long 35-year trophy drought, but also to show the world, especially America, that Iran isn't everything that it might appear to be.

Ghotbi arrived in America with ambitions of becoming a footballer. "It was two years before the revolution, July 1977. I had an opportunity to pursue my education and also my dream as a football player," he said.

"Maybe at that moment California wasn't the right place -- I didn't have the choice or a say -- but it was an environment where football was being born. The NASL was going on and I was 15 minutes from the Aztecs and the Rose Bowl. I got to see Johan Cruyff play, and Rinus Michels was the coach, so those were my inspiration. Cruyff was my inspiration. As soon as I kicked a ball I wanted to be a footballer."

That exposure to Michels, the Dutch coach whose famous "Total Football" philosophy revolutionized the game, put him on a path to coaching and his first job, the UCLA women's soccer team.

It was here that he met Steve Sampson, future coach of Team USA at the 1998 World Cup in France. When the draw for the group stage was made, Sampson offered Ghotbi a job as chief scout, primarily to discover more about the dark horses of the group: Iran.

The game between Iran and the United States in Lyon is now considered one of the great moments in World Cup history. U.S.-Iranian relations had been at their lowest ebb following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian hostage crisis and the brutal Iran-Iraq war where, infamously, the U.S. and many of its Western allies at first backed Saddam Hussein.

There are two things that can bring this planet closer together: love and football
--Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi

But the match took place just over a year after the shock election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and detente was in the air.

"That game in Lyon, I can remember it vividly," he recalls.

"I saw Iranian people with an American flag on one side [of their cheek] and an Iranian flag on the other side. Iranian men with American wives, hugging each other and jumping up and down when America scored and when Iran scored. That really showed me the power of football. There are two things that can bring this planet closer together: love and football."

Iran's shock 2-1 victory sparked wild celebrations in Tehran, where one million people took to the streets. It was a symbolic moment for the country, one that marked Iran's growing openness to the West, even if the country's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, couldn't resist some gloating.

"Tonight, again," he told state television in a message to the team, "the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands. Be happy that you have made the Iranian nation happy."

With his American passport, Ghotbi still couldn't return to his family. He was hired as an analyst with the South Korea team that reached the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, before becoming assistant coach four years later.

"I tried when I was an assistant coach at South Korea to go to Iran," he said.

"With an American passport ... they told me two days before I couldn't go to Iran. So it was kind of a sad moment. All the Korean players were fascinated, how come you couldn't go back to your country?"

It was while working as an assistant coach at American club LA Galaxy that everything changed. The call came from Iran and he was offered the top job at Persepolis, Iran's biggest football team. It was the first time he had set foot on Iranian soil for 30 years.

"When the plane touched down, I remember clearly that I didn't know what to expect," Ghotbi remembers.

When I walked down the runway, I saw all the people with flowers, flags, pictures, music. I was touched...
--Afshin Ghotbi

"When I walked down the runway, I saw all the people with flowers, flags, pictures, music. I was touched. At that moment, that is where I felt I was home."

Even more emotional was the reunion with his mother.

"There were tears and a little bit not sure what to say or do. But love finds a way."

In his first season Ghotbi won the league for a team that claims to have 30 million supporters and a local derby with Esteghlal which attracts a 120,000-strong all-male crowd (women are banned from watching football matches in Iran) at the Azadi National Stadium.

"I was a coach at the Galaxy ... but whether we won or lost there wouldn't be that much impact on the lives of the people," he explained. "But when I was at Persepolis, and we won, people were happy for days, and if we lost people were miserable for months.

"Most people know what football means for the Argentineans, the Brazilians and the Italians. Multiply that by 10 and that's what it means to the Iranian people."

Despite resistance from Iran's football establishment, Ghotbi was appointed national coach after Ali Daei -- a former player who still holds the all-time goalscoring world record in international football -- was fired in 2009. A recent WikiLeaks cable suggested that Daei was personally sacked by President Ahmadinejad, who is a huge football fan.

Iran was on the verge of being eliminated from qualification for the 2010 World Cup: Ghotbi had three games to save their campaign. Victory over the UAE and a draw against North Korea set up a crunch match with South Korea, where victory would have secured qualification. But the match became infamous for other reasons.

With protests raging in Iran over the result of the 2009 Presidential election, many of the team, including the captain Ali Karimi, took to the pitch wearing green wristbands, allegedly in solidarity with the opposition "Green Movement."

A late goal by Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung shattered their dreams. They were eight minutes away from qualifying.

The political fall-out back home lasted long after the final whistle. One government newspaper reported that the players had been banned from playing for the national team for their acts of conscience, a story which made headlines across the world -- but one that Ghotbi denied was true. Several of the players have since played for Iran again and one, Javed Nekounam of Spanish club Osasuna, is in the Asian Cup team.

Ghotbi kept his job and rebuilt the side for this month's Asian Cup. The team has been the strongest of the group stage, winning all three matches including a tense derby with neighbors and rivals Iraq.

It could well be Ghotbi's last game as coach. After the tournament he will take charge of Japanese side Shimizu S-Pulse. But he is in good shape to secure Iran's first trophy since 1976, and in the process show Iran in a different light.

"The goal we have set is to win the Asian Cup for the first time in 35 years," he said.

"We really want to do this for the people of Iran. Iranians around the world are intelligent, passionate, kind and unfortunately the Western world has the wrong image of them. Maybe this team can change that."

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