Iran looks to be the power in Asia
About 18 months ago your tribalfootball correspondent was sitting in a café in the busy Sydney nightclub strip of Darlinghurst, having a coffee with Afshin Ghotbi, who has just resigned his post as manager of Persepolis FC, Iran Pro League champions in 2008.
Ghotbi, who had worked as an assistant with Guus Hiddink and Pim Verbeek with the Korea Republic national team, wanted a job in Australia. The problem was no one wanted to talk to him. Only Tasmania United FC, a club that existed only on paper and was hoping to become an A-League expansion team, could be bothered picking up the phone to talk to him.
Ghotbi’s issue, as he saw it, was that he was a “teacher coach”. Someone who had earned his stripes in schools, universities and professional clubs, such as LA Galaxy, well on the periphery of the big time: Europe. He had no elite playing career to boast of and his face was unfamiliar to most, though with his dark features and slicked-back hair he could pass for a reasonable Andy Garcia or Joe Montagna. If football didn’t work out for him, I thought, there was always the option of a career in Hollywood.
That Ghotbi, one of the smartest football brains I’d ever met and trusted confidant of such luminaries as Hiddink, couldn’t even get an interview with an Australian club was an outrage and I felt for the man. He wanted to bring his girlfriend to Australia so she could go to university and was hoping for a new life.
But because his only great success as a coach – his time at Persepolis – had happened in the Middle East and he was a celebrity there, he accepted that’s where his future career opportunities were likely going to come.
So Ghotbi left Australia empty-handed, went back to his home in Dubai and became just another unemployed coach. Bored out of his mind and itching to do something, he considered writing his life story, as good a tale I’ve heard as any. But then Mohammed Mayelikohan, a kneejerk stand-in for Ali Daei, resigned as national-team manager of Iran and the Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation wanted Ghotbi to replace him.
A remarkable opportunity. Especially for an Iranian-American who had grown up in Southern California and at one point couldn’t even get a visa to travel to Iran.
Ghotbi tried valiantly to rescue Iran’s doomed World Cup qualifying campaign in the three matches he was given, but could not overcome DPR Korea and Korea Republic away despite picking up a victory against United Arab Emirates in Tehran.
Remarkably he even got to keep his job. Five points from three games could not be counted as a hanging offence – even by the executioners of the IRIFF.
And how the Iranians, historically not the most patient of football tribes, have been rewarded for their forbearance.
Not only has Ghotbi guided them to easily qualify for the Asian Cup in Qatar in January 2011 but last week he achieved a rare quinella: defeating China and Korea Republic away to record Iran’s sixth win in a row, following wins over Armenia, Thailand, Singapore and North Korea.
Iran hadn’t defeated China away since 1997 and Korea Republic since 2004, so these were historically significant results.
China and Korea Republic have been two of the form teams in Asia of late and to pick up victories on their own patch takes some doing. It’s a testament to Ghotbi’s qualities and his perseverance that he was able to pull it off and do it convincingly. The team’s historically lax defence has been tightened up, younger players have been introduced and blooded into the first team and there is a sense of esprit de corps around the side not seen since their 1998 World Cup heyday.
These were all areas that Ghotbi identified early as problems with the Iranian team and on the evidence he has succeeded in fixing them four months out from the Asian Cup. The poisonous politics inside and outside the team also seems to have been neutralised – at least for now.
Iran has not figured in many pundits’ calculations as pre-tournament favourites but must now be considered in the same bracket as Saudi Arabia, Korea Republic, Japan and Australia. It has a tough group, lumped with Iraq, North Korea and UAE, but should have no difficulty getting through to the quarter-finals.
It may not have the European stars of South Korea or Australia (only two, Javad Nekounam and Masoud Shojaei, earn their keep outside of the Middle East) but it has what the Iraq team of 2007 had in abundance: the desire to win and a coach who knows what he’s doing and has players who believe in him. That is not something Iran has always been able to boast of with any conviction.
Whatever happens in Qatar, the past 18 months has seen Ghotbi make a name for himself. Next time he comes to Australia, his phone should be ringing off the hook.