SHIZUOKA, Japan -- Afshin Ghotbi looks to be enjoying life as he sits in his favorite Italian restaurant in the city of Shizuoka on Japan's Pacific Coast. It's hard to blame the Iranian-American for that -- he has taken Shimizu S-Pulse to second in the J-League and for the moment at least, the big city clubs in and around Tokyo, an hour or so to the east by bullet train, or Nagoya and Osaka to the west, are trailing in an orange wake. The city's English-style stadium is full every week as, under the distinctly non-English style shadow of Mount Fuji, thousands of fans cheer on their heroes onto what would be a first championship.
Ghotbi's soccer journey started at the other side of the ocean when, at the age of 13, he left his home of Tehran to move to the United States. The Iranian capital has always been full of passion for the game but Los Angeles provided an education that was to stand him in good stead. "Living in Southern California exposed me to many football cultures," Ghotbi told SI. "I had coaches and teammates from every corner of the world. As a teenager, I was lucky to live 15 minutes from the Rose Bowl, and I saw the greatest players in the world play in the NASL -- Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff and more. "
They were heady times for American soccer but Ghotbi has had a few of his own. He was part of the coaching staff at the 2002 World Cup under Guus Hiddink in South Korea. His first professional job as head coach in 2007 took him back to Iran for the first time in 30 years where he was carried out of Tehran airport on the shoulders of hundreds of Persepolis fans. Over 100,000 were celebrating eight months later as the Reds won the title in the 96th minute in the last game of a emotionally-draining season. That triumph got him the national team job a few months later after Ali Daei was fired after five games of the final round of qualification for the 2010 World Cup.
Ghotbi couldn't turn it around and failure to win in front of 80,000 North Korean fans in Pyongyang or 66,000 in Seoul, ended dreams of South Africa though the match in the southern capital was overshadowed by a number of players wearing green armbands in support of anti-government demonstrators back home, protesting the election "result" that saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected, officially at least. Ghotbi's standing among fans in Iran took a hit when he attended the re-inauguration although he claims that he had little choice and given the intimate relationship between the state and the game in Iran, it is a statement not difficult to believe. Now he is enjoying the sane and well-organized world of Japanese soccer.
All of that hardly ever happened. The demise of the NASL in 1984 meant that after Glendale High and then UCLA, few playing paths were open but there were other ways to stay involved. "While playing at UCLA for the men's team, I had an opportunity to be the head coach of the women's soccer team. Teaching women about the game thought me much about the importance of group dynamics, communication and people management... coaching became a more attractive option for me."
At UCLA, he met Steve Sampson. When Sampson took the U.S. to the 1998 World Cup, he asked Ghotbi, then 34, to go with him to scout the other teams in the group, of which one was Iran. It was the second match of the three, especially important as both had lost their opening games. Given the relationship between the two nations, it was a clash that transcended sport, something amply demonstrated with President Clinton's messages of good luck and peace to both teams before the game. While the world watched events in Lyon, Ghotbi was trying to deal with his unique situation. After 21 years away, he still hadn't set foot on Persian soil. "It was a case of mixed emotions," he said. "The passion of the Iranian team and fans made me feel close to my roots but I had a duty to my profession and the job I was employed to do and that made sure I was focused on the football." Iran won 2-1.
It wouldn't be the last time that Ghotbi was to have personal and professional loyalties divided. In December 2000, he got a call that was to change his life. It was from Guus Hiddink. The Dutchman wanted a video analyst in South Korea and hired Ghotbi for an 18-month roller-coaster ride that ended with a semifinal defeat at the 2002 World Cup at the hands of Germany in Seoul. Anyone who was in the country that summer will never forget it.
Perhaps the one game that doesn't really stick out in the minds of Koreans is the USA encounter, a 1-1 tie sandwiched between victories over European powers that became etched on the nation's sporting fabric. Ghotbi remembers it well however. "The U.S. team had players I worked with, including John O'Brien, that made it difficult for me. Once again though, I found that the only way one can get through these games is to channel all emotions toward the professional commitment to the team you are working for."
Ghotbi returned to Korea to assist Dick Advocaat in time for the 2006 World Cup and was number two to Pim Verbeek at the 2007 Asian Cup -- when Korea defeated Iran in the quarterfinal after a penalty shootout. During qualification for that tournament, he had been denied a visa to return to Iran with the Korean team but in August 2007, he was back and meeting his mother for the first time in 30 years after accepting the offer to coach Persepolis, the nation's biggest club.
Popular with the fans for being professional, open with the media and humble in defeat and victory he was less liked by some of the old guard in soccer. There were those who had little for a coach who had left the country for America only to return and be labeled "Afshin the Emperor" by fans before the season had even started. It was a roller-coaster campaign that included political infighting, problems with players and a six-point deduction handed down by FIFA but it ended with a dramatic last-minute title win. Not long after the celebrations died down, he was taking over the national team. In January 2011 after a quarterfinal defeat at the hands of South Korea ended Iran's Asian Cup hopes. Ghotbi headed to Japan.
While Shimizu does not have the resources of some of the big city clubs like Nagoya Osaka, Yokohama F Marinos or Urawa Reds, the team is deeply-rooted in the local community and as some of the big boys are going through transitional stages, it is a perfect time to for a team like S-Pulse to break through. The people of the city love the club. And at the moment they love the lofty position in the standings.
"We can't compete financially with some of traditionally bigger clubs in Japan, so we have developed a long-term strategy using young players to build a successful club both on and off the pitch," said Ghotbi. "Our players are growing with each training session and fixture and we are definitely a contender..." At the very least, a first place in the Asian Champions League is a strong possibility. Shimizu seems to be going places under the well-traveled coach who learned his trade in L.A.
John Duerden has been living in Asia for more than a decade and has been called "The voice of Asian football" by the BBC.