Dan Gaspar Has A Chance To Be Part Of Something Big In Iran

Dan Gaspar answered a question about the biggest misconceptions that Americans may have about Iran, not with a story of suffering, but with a story of suffrage.

"We were in South Korea when the presidential elections were going on in June," Gaspar said. "The Iranian ambassador in South Korea came to our hotel. He had a box with pieces of paper. The players and the other members of our contingent with an Iranian passport were allowed to vote. And they did.

"You talk about misconceptions. Who would have thought, with the perceptions that most of the world has about Iran, that they'd have a ballot box during World Cup qualifying for the players to exercise their right to vote? That occurred. And once the elections ended, among the administrators and players, there was jubilation."

Final score: Iran 1, South Korea 0. Destination: 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Final score: With 50.7 percent of more than 36 million votes cast, moderate Hasan Rowhani was elected to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president. Destination: Well, the hope is better relations between Iran and the West, especially the U.S.

"It was a perfect storm," said Gaspar, the Iran national soccer team assistant coach from Glastonbury. "We qualified first in our group, which had never happened in Iran's history. The most optimistic person wouldn't have given us any chance of beating South Korea in South Korea.

"Couple that with the newly elected president, where there seems to be a renewed hope and aspirations for some modernization, and that combination of politics and sport gave the entire country a different feeling. It was magical."

The streets of Tehran had been filled celebrating the stunning victory by Rowhani, a cleric supported by Iran's reformers in hopes of better foreign relations, greater freedoms and a relaxation of international sanctions. Four nights after the election, when the team won in South Korea, Gaspar said players received texts and emails that "millions" were celebrating the combination of events.

Arriving in Tehran, the team was summoned by both Rowhani and Ahmadinejad. Their arrival was covered by national television, evidence of how much the sport means to the soccer-passionate Iranians.

"The pressure to qualify was intense, Iran desperately wanted to compete in Brazil," Gaspar said.

In 2009, Iran played South Korea to a 1-1 draw in the qualifier, falling short of the 2010 World Cup. Ahamadinejad had just been re-elected in a disputed election and six players had taken to the field in green wristbands in what was seen as support of candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. There were mass demonstrations in Tehran. Ahmadinejad, according to the The New York Times, was also rumored to have been involved in the hiring and firing of coach Ali Daei and the inclusion of some players on the national team. There, too, had been riots in 2001 when Iran was eliminated from the 2002 World Cup qualifier by Bahrain.

There was plenty of tension this time, too, between head coach Carlos Queiroz and South Korea coach Choi Kang-Hee. When South Korea played in Iran last year, Choi claimed Iran had made the stay as uncomfortable as possible with poor training facilities and accommodations and with visa snags. Choi said he was going to make life very painful for the Iranians in South Korea. Queiroz said Choi had embarrassed the Iranian people and called for an apology. Instead Choi said, "I will defeat Iran no matter what. Queiroz will be watching the Brazil World Cup on TV."

From there, it got a little bizarre. South Korea player Son Heung-Min had claimed he would make Iran captain Javad Nekounam shed "tears of blood." Queiroz would be photographed in the days leading into the game with a picture of a grim Choi taped to his shirt. After the game, Queiroz gave Choi what appeared to be an "up yours" hand gesture. Cans and water bottles were thrown from the stands.

"Coach Choi made some unfortunate remarks," Gaspar said. "He said he preferred Uzbekistan, our direct competition to qualify for the World Cup, and that he didn't like Iranians. Those comments really motivated our staff and our players and gave our players motivation to compete. And they did. Sometimes words do matter. Those words helped us secure a victory.

"I think what he said was out of order. Does Iran have the facilities South Korea does? No. Perhaps it didn't meet his expectations but Iran gave the South Koreans the best they had. There was no intention or mind games to make their visit unpleasant."

When Gaspar was invited in 2011 to coach by Queiroz, he agonized over the pros and cons of leaving as Hartford coach for Iran. He also had worked with Queiroz on four different continents, including as Team Portugal goalkeeper coach for the 2010 World Cup, and such opportunities are rare jewels.

"Leaving Hartford was probably the most difficult decision I've had to make in my career," Gaspar said. "Pat Meiser and Walter Harrison were fantastic to me. There have been times during this journey when I wondered if it was the right decision. Qualifying for the World Cup and going to one of the mother countries of football, makes it all worthwhile."

He lives in a high-quality apartment Tehran. He comes home every two months. Still there are long stretches away from his wife and family.

"It hasn't been easy," said Gaspar, who holds dual Portugal/U.S. citizenship. "My family has been extremely supportive. Without them, there is no way I could have had these wonderful experiences.

"Tehran is like every other major city. It's congested. Driving is insane. I refuse to drive. We have a chauffeur and an interpreter with us at all time. I'm with the national team so maybe that isolates me, but I feel extremely safe and secure. I have never felt threatened in any way. In terms of the general public, they're kind, understanding, respectful. They've accepted us. Politics is not something in our discussion."

Iran, which previously had advanced to the World Cup in 1978, 1998 and 2006, has matches scheduled each month, save December and January, leading into the World Cup and will compete in the Asian Cup. Because of sanctions, it's not easy to get teams to come to Iran or to go to other countries. Visas are difficult to secure.

One of great joys for Gaspar has been the team's improvement.

"Their individual skill sets are very good, comparable to most countries in the world," Gaspar said. "The challenge we had was psychologically, emotionally. They tend to overreact. They tend to lose focus. They tend to get easily disturbed. That is something we had to try to change. We had to try to develop more self-confidence to succeed in the international arena.

"Keep in mind many of these players had never left Iran. So they really don't have the ability to compare themselves to other soccer nations. We devised training sessions that would enhance their competitiveness and 11 vs. 11 read of the game. They were encouraged to evaluate multiple conditions and come up with the correct decision. They improved each session. Their confidence grew. Their mentality to compete got more aggressive."

Gaspar said he'll occasionally bump into people outside Iran who'll ask him what he's doing. And when he answers, he gets "the stare.'' They don't know what to say. He listens to the BBC to CNN and other outlets. He hears the rhetoric.

"Sometimes I don't feel that's where I'm living," Gaspar said. "I'm a soccer coach. I'm not a politician. I'm about human beings. You want to be open to other cultures.

"Sports transcends politics. However we do know that victories and losses create a tremendous nationalistic fever. We knew for three years that we had 75 million on our shoulders with the hope of making this World Cup."

A perfect storm lightened that load and gave 75 million people hope.

CHICAGO