By Paul Kennedy
Dan Gaspar likes to say he is a citizen of the world.
For the last two decades, he worked abroad as often as he has been at home. Born in Connecticut to parents of Portuguese descent -- his father, Manuel, was a former professional goalkeeper in Portugal -- Gaspar specializes as a goalkeeping coach, and his career has taken him to Europe, Africa and Asia as well as stints in college (alma mater Hartford) and MLS (MetroStars).
His current job is as a member of Iran's national team coaching staff, and it will be the longest stint he has had with one team. Iran recently qualified for the World Cup for the fourth time, which means his contract will keep him with the Iranian national team for three years through the 2014 World Cup.
He says his family will be in the stands when Iran plays in Brazil next summer, but in the meantime he jokes his family with him in Iran is the rest of the Iranian coaching staff -- head coach Carlos Queiroz, with whom he went to the 2010 World Cup on the Portugal coaching staff, and the other assistants, Tony Simoes, the former Portugal great and NASL player, and Iranian-American Omid Namazi, the former indoor star who was coaching in Iran and serves as their liaison to the players as a Farsi-speaker.
He says the living accommodations are outstanding, and they have a driver who takes them around. They get JSC satellite with eight or nine stations that show international soccer.
"It's all football," he says. "It's not unusual to see MLS games."
Gaspar, who says he continues to follow MLS closely and is impressed with its progress since he assisted Queiroz with the MetroStars in 1996, visits his wife, who owns a salon in Connecticut, about a half a dozen times a year for two-three weeks and will head back to Iran after attending Tuesday's USA-Costa Rica Gold Cup match in East Hartford.
"I am grateful to whoever invented Skype," he says, "because that helps an extreme amount."
Gaspar says he has encountered no problems because he's American, or as he likes to be known, Portuguese-American.
"It's a country that has four seasons, a country where the landscape is marvelous," he says. "The food is healthy. The people have been kind and respectful. There haven't been any issues as far as being a Portuguese-American. I feel safe. I feel secure. And the hospitality extended to me has been no different than anywhere else I have traveled to."
Iran qualified for the World Cup on the final day of qualifying in the Asia zone. It turned out it needed to beat South Korea in Ulsan to avoid being overtaken by Uzbekistan in their group and falling into a playoff. Iran qualified for the first time as group champion -- it also went to the finals in 1978, 1998 and 2006 -- after a 1-0 win in a match loaded with pre-game tensions.
Korea coach Choi Kang-Hee boasted that his team would qualify in style and help Uzbekistan join Korea at the World Cup, saying he disliked Iran for the way he said his team was treated when it played in Tehran and lost 1-0.
Iran got the last laugh as Choi quit in disgrace even though Korea qualified (barely) ahead of Uzbekistan, and he was immediately replaced by Hong Myong-Bo, the former LA Galaxy defender, as head coach.
Millions of Iranians celebrated the victory in the streets, and the national team players and coaches were feted at Azadi Stadium in Tehran and had audiences with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his recently elected successor, Hassan Rowhani.
"It was a great feeling to know that sports could give such a feeling to the country, such happiness and joy," says Gaspar. "They were desperate, I think, for a World Cup qualification, and we delivered it. The appreciation was immense."
One of the most satisfying aspects of Gaspar's job has been working with goalie Rahman Ahmadi, who at the age of 32 went from being a perennial backup to the man of the match in the win over South Korea. The longtime starter, Mehdi Rahmati, retired from the national team, and Daniel Davari, who plays in Germany for promoted Eintracht Braunschweig, was injured, so Ahmadi started the last three qualifiers.
Ahmadi's case is an example of the intense scrutiny players are under in the Iranian media.
"I'm just so pleased for him," says Gaspar. "We had played Kuwait in a friendly and lost 3-1. It was one of those games where the goalie does absolutely nothing [wrong] and gives up three world-class goals. But the [television] commentator in Tehran criticized him so extremely that his wife watching the match had to be rushed to the hospital. He had to deal with that type of pressure. But we focused and developed an incredible partnership. After the match, he was the guy I sprinted to and we hugged and raised our arms."
Now comes the hard part -- living up to expectations in a country where the media coverage is the most intense Gaspar says he's ever seen in his soccer travels.
"From the moment we landed back in Tehran," Gaspar says, "we felt the weight of 75 million people on our shoulders."