TRAVEL NEWS: Despite Geopolitics, Soccer in Iran Means Diplomacy

The national soccer team of Iran took the field today against Nigeria at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. (They drew 0-0). In the unlikely event that the United States and Iran face each other in the 2014 World Cup, at least one Iranian coach is not going to have trouble discussing sports and politics with American players. Because Dan Gaspar, Iran’s goalkeeping coach, is an American who lives in Connecticut.

 Iran goalkeepers coach Dan Gaspar works with goalies after an international soccer friendly against Trinidad and Tobago in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 8, 2014. Julio Cortez—AP

Iran goalkeepers coach Dan Gaspar works with goalies after an international soccer friendly against Trinidad and Tobago in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 8, 2014. Julio Cortez—AP

The proprietor of Star Goalkeeper Academy and University of Hartford head coach is part of the most diverse staff in the World Cup. Iran’s head coach is Portugal’s Carlos Queiroz, who can also claim staffers from Australia, Mozambique, and Cape Verde. “It’s been a fantastic experience these last three years in Iran,” says Gaspar. “I’ve never felt being an American was a detriment. I have found it interesting: and everyone has been very respectful.”

While Western influences helped in introducing the sport to Iran, its promotion had much to do with its monarch Reza Shah, who had assumed power as the Shah of Iran in October of 1925. “He legislated that men trash their robes and don proper western suits,” Foer wrote. “To make a modern nation, he wanted to create a modern Iranian man who understood the values of hygiene, manly competition, and cooperation.” Soccer, Reza Shah found, could help instil such Western values in Iran’s men. To him, the sport was a symbol of modernization, so much so that he ordered the razing of mosques to make room for soccer grounds. In 1947, the country’s national soccer federation was established under the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Reza Shah’s son, who valued the sport as a fervent pursuit—as a pastime that he loved—beyond seeing it as a tool to advance modernity.

By the 1960s, with the burgeoning of television coverage, soccer had come to represent a passion for the Iranian people; to them the sport was a quixotic pursuit, which would allow them closer access to the Western world. The Iranian team won the Asian Cup three consecutive times—in 1968, 1972, and 1976—but it was the first of those victories that marked a watershed moment. In the finals of the 1968 Cup, which was hosted by Iran and boycotted by many of its Arab neighbors in protest of Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967, Iran met Israel in a feisty match, which saw swathes of zealous Iranians hurl anti-Semitic chants at their opponents. Iran’s 2-1 victory, as the historian Houchang Chehabi reported, had made soccer a mass phenomenon in the country.

When the Revolutionaries took over Iran in 1979, they saw soccer as a product of the destructive modernization program instilled by Reza Shah. But while the new regime was successful in stymieing the growth of pop culture and other major forms of entertainment, any efforts to quell soccer, they found, would alienate precisely those people whose support was crucial to the government’s stability. Yet, in the midst of an eight-year-long war with Iraq that began in 1980, the Iranian government offered little support to its soccer team. What’s more, it nationalized the country’s domestic club-teams, took efforts to delay transmission of soccer matches on television with a view to censoring any anti-governmental sentiment emanating from the crowd, and banned women from watching soccer altogether. These didactic decrees ultimately led to the outpouring of emotions in the aftermath of Iran’s qualification for the 1998 World Cup Finals. In fact, when the team returned from Melbourne, its members were greeted at the Azadi by hordes of supporters, including many women, who had broken the Mullah’s express commands.

Of the 32 teams in Brazil, Iran has been given the slimmest chance of advancing, a prediction the Iranians have used as a motivating factor. Indeed, just getting to Brazil was a struggle. An unexpected win over South Korea, in Seoul, in the Asia qualifying tournament punched their ticket there. For Gaspar, it was the culmination of a three-year effort led by Queiroz to get Iran back into a World Cup final. Queiroz is one of soccer’s master coaches and a mentor to Gaspar, who is of Portuguese descent. He was on Portugal’s staff when Queiroz led that team in South Africa in 2010. “Once you catch that bug, you want to relive that experience,” Gaspar says.

Even in Iran? Although he was not exactly encouraged by friends and family to take the job, it proved irresistible. “Professionally it was an opportunity to work in a different part of the world. I’ve always been adventurous from a football and cultural standpoint,” he says. Soccer inevitably gets tied up in politics in most countries, and that was certainly the case in 1998 when Iran beat the U.S., 2-1, in Lyon, France, setting off joy in Iran. In that game, players on both teams took a joint pre-game photo instead of the traditional individual team photos to underline sport above politics. This year, the global politics are getting more intertwined, too: Shiite Iran backs the Syrian government against some Western-funded Sunni rebels. But at the same time the U.S. and Iran have common cause against Sunni jihadists who are now besieging Shiite-ruled Iraq, where U.S. investment in both blood and money has been huge.

Political tangles are not Gaspar’s issue. In Brazil, as in all World Cups, the coaching staffs live in the cocoon of competition and can’t look beyond the next game. Iran is considered easy pickings in its group with Nigeria, Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most of the team plays in the obscure Iranian professional league, not in Europe’s top flight competition. “It’s quite a challenge. We look it as an advantage–our guiding principle has always been team above individual,” says Gaspar. “We have established a team that is humble, committed, that’s willing to follow a discipline that we have created.” With such a polyglot staff, the biggest issue is communication– not necessarily translating words, but in understanding the language of soccer, of emotions.

To read the full article on Dan Gaspar visit Time.com.

For more on the history of soccer in Iran, visit PSMag.com.

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Editor’s Note: Original World offers unique cultural immersion yours to Iran, including the upcoming Persian Treasures of Iran, which departs in the Fall of 2014.

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