ESPN – SHIJIAZHUANG, In 2000, Afshin Ghotbi found himself marveling at where life had taken him. Here was an Iranian-born, American-raised soccer coach, heading to Hong Kong from Los Angeles on a British Airways flight so he could interview with a Dutchman to be an assistant coach for South Korea’s national team.
“If that’s not globalization, I’m not sure what is,” he said with a laugh during an exclusive interview with ESPN FC.
Ghotbi’s globetrotting ways haven’t stopped. His coaching career has spanned three decades across 12 different teams. He’s been part of coaching staffs at three World Cups and spent the past dozen years in Asia, coaching in four different countries. In July, he was appointed manager of China League One side Shijiazhuang Ever Bright FC for the second time and in early-November, his side clinched promotion to the Chinese Super League.
“I’m not surprised,” said former U.S. international John O’Brien, who played on youth teams in Southern California coached by Ghotbi. “Afshin was always so astute and so driven. It’s been interesting, as an Iranian and an American, to see what opportunities have presented themselves and which ones haven’t.”
In many ways, Ghotbi is U.S. soccer’s international man of mystery, fulfilling several key roles through the years while remaining largely unknown. He played collegiately at UCLA from 1981-85 and the U.S. is where his coaching career began. His last stateside coaching gig was as an assistant to Steve Sampson during the LA Galaxy’s double-winning season in 2005. Yet even as Ghotbi returned to China, he still felt the pull of the U.S., the country that formed many of his soccer experiences. He interviewed for the managerial post at LAFC in 2017, which ultimately went to Bob Bradley, and still holds aspirations of coaching once again in his adopted homeland.
“I feel that my experiences and my qualities can bring something very different to the league and the players in MLS,” he said. “I think because I’ve been 15 years away most people have forgotten or don’t know me, but I think once they get to know me and see how I work, they will love the way my teams will play. I really think I can reach into the hearts of every player and make them giants.”
Ghotbi was born in Tehran, Iran, and his love for the game of soccer started early. He recalls playing in the streets with friends: bricks were used for goals, cars were defenders and combination passes were played off houses. “And sometimes angry neighbors,” he notes with a laugh.
In 1978, after his parents divorced and his father remarried to an American, Ghotbi moved to the U.S. with his family at the age of 13. Settling in the L.A. suburb of Glendale, Ghotbi played soccer to connect to his new home. He was a self-starter, convincing the principal at his middle school to let him start a soccer team provided he could find a coach. It proved to be the first of many valuable lessons. “At that moment, soccer was not so big in America. You not only had to become a player but a promoter. You had to be a coach and you had to multi-task to play the game you love,” he said.
Ghotbi excelled as a player in high school and he was good enough to walk on to a UCLA team that included former U.S. international Paul Caligiuri, who scored the dramatic goal that sent the U.S. to the 1990 World Cup. The coaching staff at the time included manager Sigi Schmid and eventual U.S. national team boss Sampson. Upon graduation with a degree in electrical engineering, Ghotbi founded the American Global Soccer School in 1988. Starting with $100, one player showed up on the first day, but it soon grew into 10 teams and 1,000 students each year. Ghotbi’s motivation was borne of something he had seen at UCLA.
Even the UCLA players missed the technical quality they needed to play at the highest level,” he said. “The reason is when they’re younger, no one is working with them.” The school saw the likes of O’Brien, an eventual U.S. international, ex-MLS defender Joey DiGiamarino and Pete Vagenas, who won two MLS Cups with LA Galaxy, pass through its doors. Ghotbi was demanding in terms of players gaining mastery of the ball. It was through Ghotbi’s connections that O’Brien moved to Ajax.
“Afshin was an intense coach,” said O’Brien. “He’s very much about challenging you. I was coming into my adolescence then, so there’s something to be said about having a softer approach with kids. But with us, he was pretty demanding and driven and really focused on repetitive technique drills. That was really useful for me and he called me out. I had a bad right foot, especially as a side volley. That was really hard for me to do and he was like, ‘This is not good enough. You have to practice this.'”
Ghotbi’s contacts in Southern California — Sampson in particular — led to him being named as an assistant coach for the U.S. men’s national team for the 1998 World Cup, with a special emphasis on scouting Iran. The match was littered with heavy political overtones, and remains one of the more ignominious nights in U.S. World Cup history, a game that Ghotbi recalls with mixed emotions. Iran prevailed 2-1 on a night in which the U.S. failed to convert some clear chances. The result eliminated the U.S. from the tournament but for Ghotbi, it made a deep impression that went beyond the game.
“To see fans that had American flags on one cheek and an Iranian flag on the other cheek, or a Persian man and an American woman, a married couple, in the stands, and to see that kind of friendship between two countries that have so many political problems, it really excited me to realize the power of the game,” he said.
“I think regardless of our nationality and regardless of our culture, there are certain things all human beings share. When I go into a particular team or a country, the love of the game is very important. I think the respect you give each other is very important. Trying to listen and learn about how each culture behaves and how they think.”
After the World Cup, Ghotbi planned to return to his soccer school but thanks to his overseas connections, South Korea and Guus Hiddink came calling with a special task to address a special challenge. A coaching staff that largely didn’t speak Korean — one of five languages Ghotbi now speaks — needed a way to get their points across beyond translating their instructions. So Ghotbi was asked to reprise a role he had taken with the U.S., that of using video to reinforce tactical concepts.
“At that time, nobody was creating animations and breaking images down, bringing pictures into a computer and drawing over them,” said Ghotbi. “Hiddink was quite clever because he thought, ‘This can help me because I don’t speak Korean.'”
South Korea went on to a historic run to the semifinals. Along the way they faced a U.S. team that included Ghotbi’s old protégé, O’Brien, but Ghotbi’s work with video, as well as the pedigree of having worked with Hiddink, proved to be a launch point into the coaching profession. When he was reunited with his old friend Sampson at the LA Galaxy, Ghotbi was tasked with providing the tactical preparation.
“[Ghotbi] was ahead of his time in terms of the video presentations that he did,” said then-Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant, now the General Manager of USL Championship side Sacramento Republic. “He was very precise and the detail he worked with was very high level. He always went the extra step. The way he talks about the game, talks about opponents, it’s very impassioned. And he’s fearless. He’s not afraid to take on a challenge.”
That trait was made clear in 2007 when Ghotbi took on his first managerial job with Iranian giants Persepolis. Persepolis is one of the biggest clubs in Asia, with crowds exceeding 100,000. Imagine a long-time assistant coach from outside the country, with no playing pedigree to speak of, being asked to manage Argentina or Manchester United. That is the kind of cauldron that Ghotbi stepped into.
“Everything was new to me and everything was so extreme, that anything was possible,” he said.
Those extremes extended to his personal life. Ghotbi was reconnecting with the country of his birth and relearning Farsi. Most heart-rending of all was Ghotbi’s reunion with his mother, Mahri. Being Iranian-born but holding a foreign passport meant Ghotbi couldn’t travel to Iran for much of his life. As a result, he’d seen her once in 30 years, meeting in the Netherlands on a trip with one of his youth teams.
“It was almost like I was drowning in every emotion you could imagine,” he said. “When the plane landed in Tehran, the emotions were already building. Then when I walked out and I saw her, it was incredible. I really don’t wish it for anybody to be parted from their parents.”
There’s a word in Farsi, “hashyeeh“, that loosely translates to the kinds of outside forces that can undermine, and in some cases ruin, a team. At Persepolis, there was a tidal wave of hashyeeh. Ghotbi recalls the boots of players being stolen on a road trip. Team buses would be late and supposedly private conversations were leaked to the media within minutes. Yet Ghotbi was embraced by the supporters. His Farsi was poor at times, but fans appreciated the effort he made.
Winning helped, too. It had been six seasons since Persepolis won the league, and Ghotbi promised fans that the streak would end. Persepolis started the campaign with a 16-game unbeaten streak, and fans took to calling Ghotbi “Afshin the Emperor.” The nickname made him uneasy, however, given his U.S. upbringing and the fact that Persepolis was run by the government’s Physical Education Organization (now the Ministry of Sport and Youth).
He said, “Who wants to have an Emperor? Once it catches on, there’s nothing you can do about it. You just try to stay grounded and humble and move on.”
Hashyeeh was never far away, though. In February of that season, Persepolis was docked six points for failure to pay one of its players from the previous campaign. Then in the midst of all of this, Ghotbi was recruited to be Iran’s next national team coach, although at the last minute it went to Ali Daei instead.
As the season wound down, Ghotbi repeated his pledge to win the title, and it took a Hollywood ending. Trailing first-place Sepahan by two points with one game to play, Persepolis hosted the league leaders on the final matchday. The game was tied 1-1, in the sixth minute of second-half stoppage time, when Sepehr Heidari’s header saw Persepolis grab the title. “That was a goal from above, a miracle,” said Ghotbi.
Alas, the moment proved fleeting. Ghotbi resigned the following November, the hashyeeh finally becoming too much.
“If you’re in football long enough, you develop a sixth sense that things are not normal,” he said. “Things weren’t happening the way they should, and I just felt it was better that I leave.”
There is a downside to performing a miracle in that after you do it once, everyone thinks you can do it again. With Iran in danger of missing out on the 2010 World Cup, Iran’s football federation turned to Ghotbi, who was brought in for the last three games of qualifying, two of which were on the road. Again, it came down to an all-or-nothing showdown on the final matchday for Ghotbi, this time against South Korea and this time, it wasn’t to be. While Masoud Shojaei put Iran ahead in the 52nd minute, South Korea’s Park Ji-Sung equalized with nine minutes remaining. The World Cup dream was over.
“I felt at that time in life that I had a golden touch, that everything was going to be successful,” he said. “When that ball snuck inside the post… It’s a really unfortunate sequence. When you experience that, that was one of the lowest moments. It was my dream to take a team to the World Cup as a coach. It still is.”
Ghotbi has had five different managerial stints since then and regaining that golden touch has been elusive. That is until earlier this month, when Shijiazhuang won nine of its last 12 games, including a 2-0 win over Xinjiang Tianshan on the final matchday, to win promotion. The U.S. still holds plenty of allure for Ghotbi and there are five managerial jobs in MLS either vacant or occupied by interim coaches.
“I would love my next move to be to the U.S.,” he said before taking the Shijiazhuang job in July. “I think sometimes when I see [MLS], I don’t see the passion I want to see. I don’t see the commitment I want to see.
“That’s why for example when you see the U.S. women’s football, you really see that and that’s why so many people love this women’s team.”
Regardless of whether he returns to the U.S., Ghotbi isn’t one to feel cheated.
“This game has done so much for me,” he said. “I could stop breathing right now and I’ll go to my grave with a big smile on my face because of the experiences I’ve had, the places I’ve seen, the things I’ve done. It’s incredible because of this sport.”
Ghotbi’s not done yet.