International soccer can be a pressure cooker. Vancouver FC’s new coach knows it well

Over the span of 29 days, 64 matches will be played at the 2022 World Cup, each one reaching a massive global audience.

Sitting on the sidelines during those games at Qatar’s eight state-of-the-art stadiums will be national team coaching staff, lanyards around their necks, who know their every decision will be scrutinized.

It’s a unique kind of pressure that Afshin Ghotbi knows well.

Before recently being named the first head coach of Vancouver FC, the newest entry in the Canadian Premier League, Ghotbi plied his trade in seven countries: he has been on the coaching staff of three World Cup teams and head coach of the national team of Iran , the country of his birth.

That experience, he says, will help him build Vancouver FC — set to take to the pitch for the upcoming 2023 season — from the ground up.

From the US to South Korea to Iran

Ghotbi was born in Iran and moved to the United States at the age of 13.

He was as an assistant coach with the United States at the 1998 World Cup, where the Americans fell 2–1 to Iran in a contest The Guardian dubbed “the most politically charged match in World Cup history.”

At the 2002 World Cup, Ghotbi served as an assistant for South Korea, which, as one of two host nations, earned a place in the semifinals, becoming the first Asian country to advance that far in the tournament.

Afshin Ghotbi, pictured at the center during a South Korea training session at the 2006 World Cup, considers the country’s performance at the 2002 World Cup one of the highlights of his career. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

The joy and sense of pride the team’s success brought to South Koreans, he says, was palpable — a perfect example of how soccer can bring people together.

“When we win the game and get back to the hotel, from our windows we see thousands of people around the hotel singing until four in the morning … After 20 years, I still can remember that as if it was yesterday.”

The more complicated aspects of the game came to the fore when he became the head coach of Iran’s national team, known as Team Melli, from 2009 to 2011.

Then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tracked the team’s progress during its ultimately unsuccessful run to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

Before joining Vancouver FC, Afshin Ghotbi, left — seen here in 2011 — served as the head coach of Iran’s national soccer team. (KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)

“In that region football is … adored and loved by so many people that it has a tendency to have social, political, and sporting influence and leaders try to use the power of the game to kind of come into the heart of the people ,” Ghotbi said.

Ghotbi says he only met Ahmadinejad a couple of times, and the former president did not interfere with the team.

As Team Melli sought World Cup qualification, however, Green Movement protests questioned the validity of Ahmadinejad’s election victory.

During a key World Cup qualifier, some national team players wore green wristbands, allegedly in solidarity with protests.

“Ahmadinejad had his election and then the election was contested and the green bands came and I’m in the middle of it as a head coach with the team,” Ghotbi said.

“I think [even] if you rehearse your whole life it’s a very difficult situation to manage.”

Ghotbi says he dealt with the pressure by focusing on the game itself. Team Melli is an institution beloved by the entire country, and he felt coaching them to victory was the best thing he could do for the people of Iran.

“I tried very hard to always be true to my heart and just work for the people,” he said.

Ghotbi has long believed in the unifying power of soccer. In a recent opinion piece for a Japanese publicationhe described himself as something of an idealist.

“Football, like other sports, needs to be independent of corporate and government interference,” he wrote.

“Maybe I am naive and idealistic, but part of me still believes the attraction of all sports depends on their purity, integrity and the sheer spirit of mankind.”

Vancouver FC’s ‘startup opportunity’

After a stint coaching in China under strict COVID-19 protocols kept him isolated from loved ones, Ghotbi looked to return to North America to be closer to family.

He connected with Vancouver FC co-owner, Rob Friend, a retired Canadian footballer whom Ghotbi tried to recruit to play in Japan years ago. Friend says he is grateful to start a club with a manager who has such an extensive resume.

Vancouver FC head coach says he relishes the opportunity to help build a club from the ground up. (Vancouver FC/Beau Chevalier)

“He’s ready for this type of challenge and I think he’s interested in building a legacy in Vancouver in this startup opportunity,” Friend said.

Ghotbi says he’s excited to be in Canada, the eighth country where he has coached. He says he sees potential for the game to grow in Canada the way it has in Asia.

His years as a coaching vagabond, he says, will help him make his players feel at home.

“As an Iranian going to America you’re an immigrant, as an American going to Iran you’re an immigrant,” he said.

“I’ve been an immigrant for my entire life, so I really sympathize with how difficult it is to be an outsider. That kind of makes me a really good coach because I can really bring everyone together and give them a sense of family and a sense of brotherhood.”

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