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Dan Gaspar: The American behind Iran's World Cup qualification

By Reza Sayah, CNN
October 31, 2013 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • American Dan Gaspar is part of the coaching team for the Iran football team
  • Gaspar is a friend of Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese head coach of Iran
  • The Portuguese-American has worked in the MLS and with the Portugal team
  • Gaspar was part of the coaching team which qualified for the 2014 World Cup

Tehran (CNN) -- His wife advised him not to go. His friends said it was too dangerous. But in 2011 veteran American football coach Dan Gaspar ignored the warnings and traveled to the Islamic Republic of Iran -- Washington's longtime political nemesis -- to help Iran's national football team qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

"Sports is my life," said Gaspar. "When I came to Iran it didn't have anything to do with political reasons. My personality is one of adventure and curiosity. I wanted to experience a culture in a part of the world I had never been to."

The goalkeeping coach's journey to Iran is the latest chapter in an international career that's taken the 58-year-old from the amateur football leagues in the U.S. state of Connecticut -- where he was born -- to the football capitals of the world.

The Portuguese-American's resume includes stints with Major League Soccer's NY/NJ MetroStars and the Portuguese national team -- featuring megastar Cristiano Ronaldo -- which qualified for the 2010 World Cup.

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In 2011, Gaspar's friend and former colleague Carlos Queiroz was named head of coach of Iran's national football team. Soon after, Queiroz invited Gaspar to join the coaching staff in Iran.

At the time, the Iranian government was locked in a bitter political feud with Washington. Iran regularly called the U.S. "The Great Satan".

U.S. politicians frequently described Iran as a rogue nation led by a radical regime, secretly building a nuclear bomb.

When discussing Washington's conflict with Tehran, U.S. President Barack Obama said that "all options are on the table", suggesting an attack against Iran was not out of the question.

Despite the ominous climate Gaspar accepted the offer -- a decision his wife wasn't quite comfortable with.

"She was shocked," Gaspar said. "She was concerned as most family members were."

Gaspar admits he had concerns too.

"When we first arrived, we didn't know how to behave and how to react," he said.

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During his first few months Gaspar didn't socialize much and rarely left his apartment, except for trips to football practice.

But Gaspar says he steadily started feeling comfortable.

He says he learned his impressions of Iran, created mostly by the media, didn't quite match reality.

"When you listen to the news and you read the news, you see things. Sometimes during commercials I step off my couch and look out of the balcony and it's not what I am seeing, it's not what I am reading, it's not what I am hearing."

Gaspar says what he has observed during his stay in Iran is a nation full of generous people who love their country, their food and their football team.

One of his most memorable moments was meeting former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"He walked on to the pitch and asked everyone to sit down, and then he himself sat down on the grass," Gaspar said. "I thought it was interesting how he put himself on the same level as everyone else. At the end of the day -- I saw him as another human being."

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In recent months, Gaspar's stay in Iran has coincided with a push by Tehran to improve relations with Washington, as moderate President Hassan Rouhani tries to settle Iran's nuclear dispute with the west.

"Right now more than ever there seems to be a lot of hope and optimism and a sense of energy that things will get better," says Gaspar. "For me I believe in peace, and, if peace is an end result, then that's best for the world."

But the highlight of Gaspar's Iranian adventure came on the night of June 18, when Iran's national football team recorded a 1-0 win over South Korea to qualify for the World Cup for only the fourth time.

The win sparked frenzied celebrations on the field and in the streets of Tehran.

"There were a lot of tears, a lot of hugging. You can't describe it. Only a few privileged people have the opportunity to climb the mountain and go to the big dance in Brazil in 2014."

Gaspar says his only disappointment that night was not being able to share the win with his wife and family back in America.

His contract in Iran runs through World Cup in Brazil next June and July. He says his focus is to help Iran impress at the tournament and then return to America with some remarkable memories.

"If I would've listened to the experts, and my friends, and family, I would have never been here in Iran. It's been part of my life for three years and the memories will last a lifetime."

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