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Passion Profile: Afshin Ghotbi
USL alum leads Iranian national team

USL News Release

by Jeff Crandall

Monday, July 13, 2009

The current manager of the Iranian national team, Afshin Ghotbi, got his start in what is now the USL Second Division, with the San Fernando Valley Golden Eagles during the 1997 season. Over the last ten years, the Iranian-American has coached for club teams in three different countries as well as being on the staff of three separate national teams, making him one of the most accomplished coaches the United States has ever produced. Joe Bergin, a member of the 1997 Golden Eagles squad shared his memories of that season with Ghotbi…

Joe Bergin is the head coach of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. Before his coaching days, Bergin played five seasons in goal for the San Fernando Valley Golden Eagles of the old D3 Pro League in the mid 90’s. His most memorable year with the Eagles came in 1997 when an Iranian American coach named Afshin Ghotbi took the helm of the club.

Bergin saw an immediate change in training that season.

“Afshin was very technical, even at that level and at that time, he was all business when it came to the game,” said Bergin from his office in Decatur. “He always pounded the goalkeepers, training was usually very intense.”

The son of an Iranian teacher, Ghotbi was born in Tehran in 1964 and moved to Southern California at the age of 13. He attended UCLA where he played for the men’s soccer team while pursuing a degree in Electrical Engineering.

Among his prerequisites to leading the U.S.I.S.L. club, was a four-year stint coaching the UCLA women’s team from 1984-1988. Ghotbi left UCLA to start the American Global Soccer School, where he worked from 1988-2001. The school produced players like John O’Brien and Peter Vagenas.

Ghotbi took the helm of the Golden Eagles at a time when soccer was still much of an afterthought in the United States. Bergin, the Golden Eagles starting goalkeeper remembers the training conditions the team dealt with.

“It’s funny to look at what he achieved after his time with us,” said Bergin. “We used to train at night on a dinky little field without lights. Afshin was able to secure some spot lights, but he could only light up a 40 x 40 yard area of the field. Tripping over the extension cords was common but we were the best team in the league in tight spaces.”

The Golden Eagles finished the 1997 campaign with a 9-7-2 record, qualifying for the playoffs where they would fall 5-0 in the first round to the San Francisco Bay Seals.

“It wasn’t the most successful season I’d spent with that club but we had a very interesting group of players that year. With Afshin, our training sessions were never dull. It was more than memorable.”

In late 1997, Ghotbi was named Chief Scout for the United States men’s national team, serving under head coach Steve Sampson through the 1998 World Cup in France. The tournament would be particularly special for the Tehran native as the U.S. was drawn into a group with his native Iran.

Unfortunately the Americans went three and out in 1998, losing 2-1 to the Iranians, but it was still a memorable experience for Ghotbi.

“The U.S.A. vs. Iran match was a special game for all involved. Personally, to be part of a World Cup match involving two countries I care the most about was truly special,” Ghotbi said in an interview with the New York Times this past April.

His time with the U.S. propelled him towards a staff position with the South Korean National Team in 2000 where he worked for Dutch legend Guus Hiddink in the Republic’s dream run to the 2002 World Cup semifinals.

From there Ghotbi’s timeline included assistant coaching positions with Suwon Blue Wings of the K-League, a return to Los Angeles to work again with Steve Sampson after he took over the Galaxy and another stint with the Korean National Team through July 2007.

“That was when Afshin finally got his first head coaching gig,” said Bergin.

Weeks after leaving the Korean team, Ghotbi was appointed to head Iran’s top club, Persepolis, located in his native Tehran. He led the Reds to the 2008 Iranian Pro League championship but resigned shortly after to return again to Los Angeles. A month later he rejoined the club but resigned again in November 2008 amid controversy surrounding the team.

“I returned to Persepolis with great hopes but I think there is a conspiracy outside the club to prevent the team’s success. I am the target of this conspiracy. I love Persepolis and its fans, however I ought to leave the team. I am heartbroken and leave Persepolis in hope of the team’s prosperity. If my presence hinders the success of the team, I would rather leave,” said Ghotbi in a letter released to the Persepolis website.

Following poor results in World Cup qualifying which left Team Melli looking a long shot to make it to South Africa, Ghotbi was named to head the national team in April 2009. The task loomed large as the team only had three matches remaining to salvage a qualification spot.

After drawing 0-0 with North Korea in Pyongyang on June 6 and defeating the United Arab Emirates 1-0 in Tehran three days later, Iran needed a win against South Korea, a team he knew all too well. With the Koreans already qualified, it appeared Ghotbi’s team had a chance on the last day in Seoul, but it wasn’t to be as Iran could only muster a 1-1 draw, missing a possible playoff berth by one point.

To his credit Ghotbi secured five points in those three matches, while the previous manager, Ali Daei, only won six points from five matches.

The defeat came four days after this year’s controversial Iranian Presidential Elections which saw four Iranian players banned from the national team for life after they wore green wrist bands in support of opposition challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi during the game.

“Afshin always stayed away from politics, he was about football,” said Bergin. “It’s why he’s been able to go on working in the different situations he’s been in. Few would be able to do what he has.”

With the results from just three matches and perhaps his commitment to staying apolitical, Ghotbi signed an 18-month contract to continue as Iran boss earlier this month. The contract will run through the 2011 Asian Championships with an option of extending the deal through the 2014 World Cup.

Bergin will continue to follow his former coach’s career going forward.

“Most of us that played under Afshin feel honored to have spent time with such a great football mind,” Bergin said. “He certainly had a drive like I had not seen before. It will be interesting to see where else he might end up in the future.”

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