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'There is no better ambassador than football': Meet the US soccer coach in Iran

Goalkeeping coach Dan Gaspar leads a pre-game warm-up for the Iran national soccer team.Abolfazi Amanoliah / Courtesy Photoaman

One American enjoys a unique view of life in Iran – from the sidelines of Tehran’s main soccer stadium typically packed with more than 100,000 screaming fans.

Dan Gaspar, 58, is the assistant coach of the Iranian national soccer team.

"My experience is not one I've seen on TV or read in a newspaper. I live here, it's real life," said Gaspar.

"It may sound strange to most people, but I've worked on four continents and Iran is one of the safest places I've worked in," he said. "When I read and hear and see things through the media and then go out to the balcony of my apartment and look into Tehran that is not what I see."

'No negative reactions'  

Gaspar, who spends all but six weeks of the year living in Tehran, says the typical American representation of Iran as an isolated place does not resemble his experience.

"You would be surprised, it is very multicultural, far more than I had anticipated," he said. "In the apartment complex I live in you often see lots of other internationals."

Socially, Gaspar says he spends time with the other staff on the soccer team, cooking meals for each other at home. Although, he did speak highly of Tehran’s restaurant scene.

"I have eaten Mexican food, I have eaten Italian food, French food," he said. "There are no bars and no night-life, publicly, so going out to restaurants is a big part of the way people socialize. Their restaurants are of a high standard, compared to any other country in the world."

While conceding that the universally warm reception he has received may have something to do with his involvement in the increasingly successful national team, he said he’s generally had a positive experience.

"Out and about in the city, when people discover that I'm an American they are interested by it," he said. "It opens up a discussion, in a positive way. I have had no negative reactions." 

Winding path to Tehran  

Gaspar took a winding path to Tehran. He began coaching in the 1970s in the amateur soccer leagues in Connecticut. From there, he went on to several roles in Portugal -- Gaspar has duel Portuguese-American citizenship and is multilingual -- before returning in 1996 for a stint on the staff at the New York Metro Stars, where he reached the MLS playoffs.

He has also worked in Japan’s J-League and in South Africa. But it was working under head coach Carlos Queiroz on the Portuguese national team which offered his unusual avenue to Tehran.

Goalkeeping coach Dan Gaspar, right, with Iran's goalkeeper Rahman Ahmadi.Abolfazi Amanoliah / Courtesy Photoaman

Queiroz is something of a legend in coaching circles, having won trophies at Real Madrid and Manchester United. But he was fired as head coach of Portugal in 2010 after allegedly insulting an anti-doping team attempting to take samples at his training ground.

In April 2011 Queiroz was announced as Iran’s new head coach -- quite a coup for a relatively small soccer nation -- and he asked Gaspar to come with him as his assistant and goalkeeping coach.

“Professionally I felt this was an incredible and interesting challenge. It’s a unique opportunity,” Gaspar said.

While in the U.S., soccer takes a back seat to the pigskin, baseball mitt, and basketball hoop. In his new home, the world’s biggest sport is firmly center stage.

“Iran is a passionate country about football,” said Gasper, using the term for soccer outside the U.S. “There is no doubt that the Iran fans are one of the most passionate fans in the world -- they love their football.”

“It’s not uncommon to have 120,000 fans attend our matches at the Azadi stadium, in Tehran. The atmosphere is electric with a sea of green, red, and white flags filling the stadium, along with the most intense noise-levels I’ve ever heard from the crowd, supporting their football heroes,” added Gaspar, who has been in the job as assistant and goalkeeper coach since 2011.

Gaspar claims his "expertise is not politics," but he has met both the recently elected President Hassan Rouhani and his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who he said had an impressive knowledge of soccer.

A moment of 'national optimism'

Rouhani's election on June 15 came at a particularly interesting time. It was followed three days later by Gaspar helping guide the Iranian soccer team to victory in Ulsan, South Korea -- and with it, to qualification for next year's World Cup in Brazil.

He said these two events created a "perfect storm" which created an "incredible feeling of national optimism."

"There was a happiness among the people and you could sense there was this hope that things would improve," he said.

He described helping Iran to qualify for the World Cup as the happiest moment in his career.

"Imagine this: You have the pressure of 75 million people on your shoulders, with the hopes and aspirations that we qualify their nation to the 2014 Brazil World Cup, and we delivered that mission,” he said.

“The celebration after in the locker room after the South Korean match, when we qualified for the tournament, was very emotional. There were tears of joy, hugs, singing, and plenty of high fives.

But he said even he was surprised when the Iranian ambassador to South Korea brought a ballot box to the team's hotel where they were staying in the run-up to the qualifier, just so players and staff could vote in the election even though they were out of the country.

"I don't think anyone from the outside world would believe that kind of thing would take place," he said.

Soccer diplomacy

Gaspar’s role could take on increased significance next year, if U.S. plans bear fruit to host Iran in a World Cup warm-up game on U.S. soil.

“Talks are only at a preliminary stage at the moment, but there appears to be a genuine interest on both sides to make this match to become a reality,” he said.

The two countries have only played twice before. Iran beat the U.S. 2-1 at the 1998 World Cup in a game of historic significance, both in terms of sport and diplomacy. This was followed by a non-competitive game in Pasadena, Calif., 18 months later.

Gaspar realizes the how important playing another match next year could be, coming at a crucial diplomatic stage between the nations.

“For 90 minutes it will be an ideal gesture towards diplomacy,” he said “Who knows, football may be a launching pad towards respectful, honest and peaceful solutions between nations?

“Certainly the world would benefit from such discussions. History has demonstrated that football has proven to bridge nations. The power and influence of football is amazing. There is no better ambassador than football.”

Both the USSF and U.S. government have refused to confirm or deny they are in talks with Iran about the game.

But U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told a briefing earlier this month: “We've always said we were open to direct negotiations and talks with the Iranians, so where a better place than on the soccer field, right?”

If the pair do meet next year, Gaspar’s only problem may be one of split loyalties.

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