For Steven Beitashour, Iran is far from strange or forbidding. His mother and father were born there, he visited the country as a child and he's pretty much fluent in Farsi.
“I definitely sound white when I speak it, but it’s okay,” he said with a laugh.
So when the Iranian national team expressed interest in the defender, who’s been a mainstay for his hometown San Jose Earthquakes since 2011, the intimidation factor was low. Beitashour has relatives in Iran (as a matter of fact, his mother is currently visiting family in Tehran) and he feels comfortable with the culture. The scariest thing about heading there Thursday for his first camp with Team Melli is the length of the flight.
For Beitashour, deciding to represent Iran isn’t about politics, a cross-cultural exchange or discovering his roots, although he did say he hoped his mother would make a few introductions. It’s about furthering his career and chasing his World Cup dream.
“It’s really just about soccer,” the 26-year-old told SI.com. “I’ve wanted to play in a World Cup since I was a little kid. This is a great opportunity coming up and I hope I can make the most of it.”
Iran, which already has secured its spot in Brazil next summer, will host Thailand on Oct. 15 in an Asian Cup qualifier at the famous Azadi Stadium, where crowds of more than 100,000 gather to watch the national team. Iran is 1-0-1 in its four-team group, which also includes Kuwait and Lebanon. The first and second-place finishers following a double round-robin are guaranteed berths in the 2015 finals.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz -- who formerly managed the MetroStars and Real Madrid, among others -- will have the vast majority of his top talent available for the match. For the most part, that means choosing from among the best players in the Iran Pro League. Few Iranian players go abroad, and there hasn’t been much of an effort to locate foreigners with Persian roots.
Queiroz has been trying to change that, Beitashour said, and forging a connection with the defender was easy. It turns out Iran’s primary assistant coach, Omid Namazi, was born in Provo, Utah. He returned to Iran as a child but then came back to the U.S. to attend West Virginia University. Namazi subsequently spent more than 15 years playing in U.S. minor and indoor leagues. Beitashour has been on his radar for a while.
“I’ve been talking to Omid for quite some time. Him and Dan Gaspar [a Connecticut native and long-time associate of Queiroz’ who coaches Iran’s goalkeepers] have been talking for me for two or three years, just going back and forth,” Beitashour said.
He was all set to join up with Iran for a camp in Portugal last month, but the scheduled friendly was cancelled. Beitashour stayed in San Jose. Now the call is for real, and an appearance in next week’s qualifier would tie him permanently to Iran.
He said, “I’m not looking back. That’s the only way to do something like this, right?”
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann invited Beitashour to train with the national team on two occasions: before last August’s exhibition win in Mexico City and during this year's January camp, which was comprised almost entirely of MLS players. Beitashour didn’t make the game-day roster at the Estadio Azteca and had to pull out in January for a hernia problem that required a second surgery.
Right back isn’t considered a position of strength for the U.S., but Beitashour hasn’t been called up since. There are no hard feelings or regrets.
“They called me in, so obviously they were watching,” he said. “That kind of answers it. If they didn’t ever call me in at all, then it’s like ‘Hey, what else do I have to do?’ Jurgen texted me after I came back from my second surgery and said ‘Keep up the good work. I saw you play.’ I know they have great scouts and they’ve been watching. That’s all I can say.”
Drafted in 2010 out of San Diego State, Beitashour is a hard-working right back who provides an offensive spark on the flank. In his three years as a regular starter he’s assisted on 16 goals and he played a key role in the Earthquakes' Supporters Shield triumph last season. Beitashour also started and went the full 90 minutes in the league’s 3-2 win over Chelsea at the 2012 MLS All-Star Game.
That match at PPL Park and those two brief U.S. camps make up the entirety of his international experience. He said he has no expectations for what he’ll encounter in Tehran.
“It’s tough to say because they haven’t seen me with the team yet. They’ve obviously seen me play many times with my club and they expressed how they feel about me. They think I’m a good player. But it’s obviously different when you see a person with the players you have,” Beitashour said. “I’m just going to train hard and hopefully play well. If he likes me, he likes me. If he has a future with me in mind, so be it. One step at a time.”
There will be some intrigue. His background, unprecedented for a Team Melli member, surely will interest fans and media in a country that’s far more curious, outgoing and engaged than many Westerners might think. That extends all the way to the top. Recently-elected President Hassan Rouhani already has worked to re-establish ties between the U.S. and Iran and when he visited the New York City for U.N. meetings last month, an audience with Beitashour was requested.
“We had a game in L.A. that weekend so I wasn’t able to go,” the player said. “I thought it would’ve been really cool to meet him.”
Beitashour said he doesn’t follow politics that closely and won’t be able to do much with questions concerning international relations or the strained history between his two countries.
“I don’t mind being asked, but unfortunately for them I can’t give them an answer,” he said. He’s happy about the thaw, however, and excited about the opportunity that awaits.
“My Mom has emailed me a good six times asking me the same question. ‘When do you get here? When does the flight get here?’ I guess the flights get in sort of early in the morning there. I keep promising her when I find out, I’ll let her know. She’s super excited and can’t wait,” Beitashour said.
“I’ve got a lot of family members waiting to see me. Hopefully I get that first night to say hi to everyone.”
Then, the business trip begins.