Afshin Ghotbi’s place in the history of South Korean soccer folklore is assured; he was, after all, a member of the national team’s coaching staff at the 2002 World Cup, the first of three stints with the Taeguk Warriors. He would argue that there is much more to come in the future whether in Korea or Japan, his current place of employment.
That has been temporarily put on hold as his new career in the J-League coincided with the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, just five days after his first game as head coach of Shimizu S-Pulse. He has to wait until April 23 before the season starts again.
His career was already full of drama. The 2010 World Cup was the first since 1994 that didn’t have the Tehran-born tactician on the bench, though he was in the country, researching current trends and future opponents. His dreams of going to South Africa with the Iranian national team were looking good with nine minutes left against his old friends in South Korea in the final qualification match in June 2009 but a late Park Ji-sung goal put paid to Persian hopes. That game was overshadowed somewhat by some of the Iranian players wearing green wristbands to support protests against the regime back home.
It was ironic that it all happened in Seoul World Cup Stadium, just a 10-minute drive along the Naebu Expressway (traffic permitting, of course) from the Grand Hilton Hotel, Ghotbi’s home for much of the period from 2000 to the summer of 2007.
When Guus Hiddink was appointed coach of South Korea in December 2000, he recruited Ghotbi, who went to the 1998 World Cup with the United States, as a technical analyst. It was during this time that his reputation as a forward-thinking tactician began to spread as the Taeguk Warriors made it to the semifinals. Ghotbi was back in Korea in October 2005 as a coach under Dick Advocaat. When that particular Dutchman headed back west after the 2006 World Cup, the Iranian-American remained as Pim Verbeek’s assistant coach until it all ended in the summer of 2007 and the Asian Cup.
It was then that Ghotbi went back to Iran for the first time in 30 years to lead Persepolis to the 2008 league title thanks to a last-minute goal in the last game of the season. The next year, he was appointed head coach of the Iranian national team. He fell just short of rescuing the stuttering qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup but did take the team to the 2011 Asian Cup. That continental quest ended in elimination in the quarterfinal by ― you guessed it ― South Korea.
Now he is in Japan with Shimizu, a team based in the city of Shizuoka, and dealing with the aftermath of what happened last month.
“We were preparing for our first home match,” Ghotbi said. “We had a training session in the Shimizu S-Pulse stadium in the morning of March 11 and returned home to pack to travel to the team hotel for the match. Then, my house started shaking and rolling. The intensity grew with time, and it seemed to last forever. The house started to make cracking sounds and I thought it was going to collapse. I have lived through a few earthquakes in California but this was on a different scale.”
“This tragedy has affected everyone in my club, as our training ground and club house is only approximately 100 meters away from the ocean so the images of the tsunami shook the nerves of our players and their entire families. People were sad, terrified and concerned about the well-being of their families, community and nation. Our foreign players were perhaps more scared as they were influenced by foreign media and embassies.”
Soccer obviously comes a very distant second in such circumstances and fans will have to wait seven weeks after the first game of the season to see the second. This lengthy break presents practical problems for coaching staff too. Like most teams, Shimizu has been playing charity matches that not only raise money for victims of the disaster but also give the players something to focus on.
“Overall, we have tried to make the best of a very difficult situation using this tragic time to improve our team,” said Ghotbi. “Given the circumstances, the players have shown great resilience, fighting spirit, and improvement. The club has done a great job to be proactive in raising money for the victims with charity matches, fund raising functions and events.”
By John Duerden, Contributing writer ([email protected]