In last Saturday's World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang between two charter members of the Axis of Evil, Iran and North Korea, the most scrutinized person on the pitch was an American citizen. The game was the debut of Iran's coach, Afshin Ghotbi, an Iranian by birth who left for the U.S. with his family two years before the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Despite his passport—and his time as a scout for the U.S. in 1998, breaking down film of Iran ahead of the teams' World Cup match, which Iran won—Ghotbi was showered with flowers when he arrived in Tehran after being hired as Iran's coach in April. He first crept into the world of international soccer in the mid-1990s as a youth team coach in California. There he helped develop John O'Brien, a midfielder who would play for the U.S. in three World Cups. "He was great at building technical skill," says O'Brien. "As time went on, he became more of a tactician." Ghotbi contacted the Dutch football federation on O'Brien's behalf and accompanied him to the Netherlands, where O'Brien eventually signed with Ajax. Ghotbi used the trip to network, befriending, among other Dutch coaches, Guus Hiddink, who hired him as an assistant when he coached the South Korean national team in the 2002 World Cup.
Ghotbi, 45, has taken over the Iranian national team at a pivotal time. The squad struggled in its early qualifiers, and a 0--0 draw against North Korea in Ghotbi's first game means the team must win its final two qualifiers (at home against the United Arab Emirates on June 10 and at South Korea later this month) to have any hope of making its fourth World Cup. It is also a critical time politically. Iran will hold elections on June 12, and both opponents and supporters of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—who has taken a hands-on role with the team—have said that a poor showing will cost him votes. For Ghotbi, though, a more pressing concern is getting to South Africa next summer. "It's now an uphill battle," he said last Saturday. "We must win [against the UAE] so we can at least give ourselves a chance."