Ghotbi to take leave of beautiful mess
Saturday's quarter-final of the 2011 Asian Cup will mark the end of an era for the team that loses. If South Korea are knocked out then Park Ji-Sung could call it quits as far as his international career is concerned. If Iran end up eliminated then it will be Afshin Ghotbi's last game in charge before he heads to Japanese club Shimizu S-Pulse for a new career.
Both want to step down with the title to their name. For Park, it would be another page in a career universally lauded. For Ghotbi, it would, perhaps, be the only thing that would placate his detractors at home, though even that may not be enough.
It is only when the 46-year-old is far away from Tehra for a few years, and Shizuoka is pretty far, that just where he ranks in the litany of Iranian coaches will be agreed upon. It has been a tumultuous 22 months and he will welcome a 'normal job' away from the craziness that is Iranian football.
Parting really will be sweet sorrow for the man in charge of 'Team Melli'. You can bet he enjoyed announcing his departure in November in a statement to the Tehran media that had spent a good deal of the previous year speculating that he was about to be fired and replaced by the likes of Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fatih Terim. He will miss it though, they all do - managing Iran is a breathtaking roller-coaster ride.
It is hard to say if it is more difficult if you are native or foreign but Ghotbi, born in Tehran in 1964 before emigrating to the United States in 1977, was both and that made it tough. The chance to work with talented players in a nation that loves football can make the job a rewarding one but there will be quite a bit he will not miss. Politics both of the football and non-football kind is everywhere. The government owns the clubs, directly or indirectly, and basically administers the sport. When you add that to the media, the administrators (how many friendlies have been cancelled or just never happened over the years?) and the whole hashyeeh, the side-issues, then you have quite a heady brew.
Ghotbi was never the saviour of Iranian football that his fans wanted him to be when he arrived back in his homeland in 2007 and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Persepolis fans waited at Tehran airport to carry him out of the terminal on their shoulders. By the same token, he wasn't the inexperienced chancer, who turned his back on his country at the age of 13, that his detractors portrayed him as. He was a young coach looking to get a chance to put what he had learned overseas into practice back in his homeland.
The Persepolis job was his first professional head-coach position but by then he had already accumulated a variety of international experience. His early coaching career in the United States earned him a place on the staff with Team USA at the 1998 World Cup. That campaign included a defeat by Iran with a goal from Hamid Estili, the future assistant at Persepolis who would cross swords with Ghotbi a decade later.
In 2002, as a technical video analyst/scout with South Korea, he worked with Guus Hiddink in their famous run to the semi-final of the World Cup. When Dick Advocaat took over for the 2006 competition, Ghotbi was named as an assistant coach and was at the right hand of Pim Verbeek at the 2007 Asian Cup, during which Korea knocked out Iran in the quarter-finals. Incredibly, that was the fourth successive meeting between the two teams at that stage in the tournament. Saturday makes it five.
Before that tournament had ended, Ghotbi had been offered the job of Persepolis, the biggest club in Asia. The Tehran giants had gone through a number of coaches, domestic and foreign, without success. Seen, by his fans, as the best of both worlds - an Iranian coach with genuine international experience - Ghotbi started on fire and the Reds stormed to the top of the table.
Despite a few wobbles and a six-point deduction, Persepolis took the title with the last kick, or header, of the season in as dramatic and emotional a finish as you could ever hope to see. It was all played out in front of 100,000 ecstatic men, and they were all men, in Tehran's Azadi Stadium, and millions of exiled Reds around the world. To lift the title in his first season despite the penalty was quite an achievement. It wasn't recognised as such in all quarters. It was Estili's team, some said, though it is highly unlikely that they would have accepted that as an excuse if Ghotbi had failed.
That triumph ultimately, though far from smoothly, led to the national team job in April 2009. After five games of the final stage of qualification for the 2010 World Cup, Iran under the legendary Ali Daei were struggling and Ghotbi was given the task of salvaging a South African spot with three matches to go. It didn't quite happen and Iran got five points instead of the seven needed. Nobody would have been too surprised if Ghotbi had been fired at that point, others have suffered the same fate for less, but the Iranian Football Federation stuck with its man.
The heady days of the second half of 2007, when this suit-wearing, smiling, young and energetic coach took Iranian football by storm, have long gone. The time when even fans of rival teams hailed this man, who in 2006 had been denied a visa to enter the country when with South Korea, as "Afshin the Emperor", could never last. Those who felt that he could single-handedly change the face of Iranian football now look naive.
If he succeeds in Qatar, his supporters will delight in telling the detractors: "we told you so". A failure will cause the roles to be reversed. In some way, this may help. Like a normal coach, Ghotbi will be judged on results. In truth, that is what he always was: a normal coach. He may have been different than the stuffy, conservative, close-minded and well-connected men that formed the majority of the local managers in the league, who didn't always take too kindly to the new guy and the headlines he commanded, but, ultimately, he is just a coach.
Now he can focus just on the football and the Asian Cup. And so far, so good. He has led Team Melli through what looked to be the toughest group at the Asian Cup with a perfect nine points. Iran may have wanted to play Australia instead of Korea, partly because of the Socceroos' lack of pace but mainly because of the novelty value, but Ghotbi will be confident of knocking out the youthful Taeguk Warriors. Just three months ago, he took Iran to Seoul to out-think and outmuscle South Korea and collect a 1-0 win.
This isn't quite the Iran team of old, one that could be delightful or desperate to watch in equal measure; one that had the talent but not always the team mentality to take trophies. But this Iran are better-organised, more focused, pragmatic and professional than before.
And if the team don't make it and lose to Korea, there is still hope for the future with promising youngsters such as Karim Ansarifard, Arash Afshin and Ehsan Hajisafi set to spend years on the international stage, and the likes of Gholamreza Rezaei and Masoud Shojaei about to reach their peak.
Ghotbi would argue he has many years before he reaches his but if he does get his hands on the trophy on January 29, it would be an achievement that would be tough to surpass and the perfect way to end a crazy three-and-a-half years in the beautiful mess that is Iranian football.