“I've always been adventurous. I’ve always been curious. I’ve always been a risk taker.”
Football can do wonderful things. In the case of Iran national team assistant coach and goalkeeping coach Dan Gaspar, football took a kid born in South Glastonbury, Connecticut and showed him the world.
Gaspar has been Iran head coach Carlos Queiroz’s No2 since 1993, working with the former Manchester United assistant manager in Japan, Portugal, South Africa and at home in USA.
The latest chapter in the American’s life was helping Iran seal qualification to Asia’s third round of FIFA World Cup Russia 2018™ qualifying. Team Melli completed their unbeaten run in the second round with two convincing wins at home in Tehran against India and Oman. And in the eight games of the round, Iran conceded just three goals.
So what led him to accepting the job with Iran five years ago?
“I was grateful Carlos Queiroz’s trust and belief that I could assist him in this unique project,” Gaspar told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “I made the decision based on how I make most of my decisions and that is I think with my brain, I feel with my heart and then I make a decision with my gut, and I went there!”
Iran are one of Asia’s powerhouses in football with three AFC Asian Cups and four World Cup qualifications and its fans are some of the most passionate you can find. The idea of taking another nation to a World Cup was enough on its own to convince Gaspar to make the move to Iran in 2011. He went to South Africa 2010 with Portugal and when asked about the experience, you can see the magnitude of it all in his eyes.
“That was an amazing experience, difficult to put into words what it means to have that kind of privilege,” Gaspar said. “When the Iranian situation was presented I realised that this could be another opportunity to participate in a World Cup and help a country achieve that.”
And he did just that. Iran qualified for Brazil 2014 and had a respectable showing at the tournament. Although they failed to advance from the group stages, they went back home with respect from the world, especially after their performance against eventual runners-up Argentina, when only a singular moment of magic from Lionel Messi in injury time was all that could separate the teams.
“Argentina’s best player that day was the goalkeeper! Who could have imagined that we would have put enough pressure on them for their goalkeeper to have been their player of the match? I have a lot of admiration and respect for our players because they played for the honour of their country and for their love of the people and the sport.”
Iran navigated through Group D in Asia’s second round of Russia 2018 qualifiers with confidence and pride in a legacy left by their countrymen stretching back to the 1960s. Playing against Oman, Turkmenistan, Guam and India, on paper it may have looked like a straightforward journey for Team Melli, but with thousands of miles to travel and diverse conditions to endure, it was anything but easy.
“It’s complicated because the environments are challenging sometimes,” Gaspar said. “In Guam, we played on a turf pitch and it’s an island with not a lot of resources but their hospitality was fantastic. We overcame the conditions that our players never were exposed to.” It was their 6-0 win in Guam that epitomised Iran’s ability to adapt and play at their highest levels.
“Iran has gone through so much turmoil for so many years, it’s amazing how they handle and process these things,” Gaspar said. “When you come from a different culture in America or Europe where everything is structured and done exactly as planned, with Iran their custom allows them to react at the moment and to resolve the situation at the moment.”
Adaptation is a theme with Iran, but it’s also something Gaspar himself has shown his whole life.
“You challenge your decisions. Did I make the right decision? Am I being responsible to my family? Nothing has ever prepared me for this from the culture I was born in. It’s all about adaptation. I’ve never felt safer, I’ve never felt more comfortable or more well respected than I have in Iran."
Gaspar has been working with Iran for five years, the joint-longest time he’s been anywhere in his career. With Team Melli through to the third round of Russia 2018 qualifying, they have every chance of making it to their fifth World Cup and for Gaspar, it would represent the longest professional adventure of his life.
“Sometimes I question if it was the right decision, but then when I base it on my real life experiences, I realise that this is a journey I would take again.”