DOHA, Qatar – Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi says a combination of Persian pride and American spirit will help Iran's national soccer team — as long as the players steer clear of politics.
Iran has been in political turmoil since the crackdown on opponents of the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. Ghotbi, an Iran-born American, took over the national team that year to give people "hope in the darkest moments."
"I have an Iranian heart, the spirit of an American and a football brain of a Dutchman," said Ghotbi, who is trying to help Iran win a fourth continental championship.
The coach says he was "disappointed" when seven of his players wore green wrist bands during a World Cup qualifier in support of an opposition candidate in that election. Iran lost the game to South Korea.
Ghotbi says there won't be any politics when the teams meet again in the Asian Cup quarterfinal in Qatar on Saturday.
The 46-year-old coach, who was born in Tehran and grew up in Glendale, Calif., has faced adversity during his tenure with the national team. Many were suspicious of the motivations and coaching style of an Iranian who lived abroad most of his life and barely spoke Farsi when he returned after 30 years in 2007.
Even the country's political opposition had its doubts.
Why would Ghotbi, the former Los Angeles Galaxy assistant coach, take up the daunting task of coaching a national team that had been without success in international soccer since the declaration of the Islamic Republic 1979? And why stay after the ruling regime had crushed a popular uprising?
Because it was a tough job and based in his homeland, he said.
"I took the most difficult path," said Ghotbi, who will end his stint with the national team after the Asian Cup and move to Japan as Shimzu S-Pulse coach. "I felt working for my country will give me an opportunity to influence people and give them hope in the darkest moments, heal the pain and make people proud of their country."
Sports has the power to do that, he said, and there's no better sport to do it than soccer — as long as the players know the national team represents all Iranians regardless of their political views.
"Who am I to decide what the country should be doing politically?" Ghotbi said. "That's why I went into sports. It made life simple. It was just a ball, two goals and 22 players."
However, it can get complicated, particularly when some of the players on the national team bring their political convictions into the game.
That's what happened during Iran's last World Cup qualifier against South Korea. Just days after massive protests erupted in Tehran following Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election, most of the players took to the field with green wristbands in support of opposition candidate Mir Hossain Mousavi.
While Iran fans at the match in Seoul cheered the national team with protest chants of "Death to the Dictator," the symbolism did not resonate well with the coach.
"It was a mistake and a very disappointing night for me, because it took the concentration of our players away from doing the job, which is to make people happy with performances and victories," Ghotbi said.
"Had the team won that game, Iran would have gone to the World Cup," Ghotbi added. "That would have been the best thing for the Iranian people no matter who they thought the president should have been."
Ghotbi restructured the team for the Asian Cup, bringing in younger players to play the "attacking and exciting football" he developed during his coaching career.
Iran, which last claimed the Asian Cup in 1976, won Group C with a perfect nine points after defeating defending champion Iraq, North Korea and the United Arab Emirates in Qatar.
The focus will be on soccer when the team plays South Korea on Saturday.
"We are athletes and we should concentrate on our job of making people happy with our performances and victories," Ghotbi said. "The national team belongs to the people and from the head coach and all the way to the ball boy, nobody should use it as a vehicle to express their political views."