Iran go for Ghotbi aiming for third time lucky

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He is an interesting character. Not long ago he was described thusly: An Iranian leaving America, flying to Hong Kong on British Airways working for the Korean National team under a Dutch coach.

The man in question is Afshin Ghotbi, as international a man who you could ever hope to meet, and he has just become the head coach of the Iranian national team.

With Iran struggling in their group, the team needs at least seven points from their last three games to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. It will not be easy but Ghotbi is not one to shirk a challenge.

Born in Tehran in 1964, he moved to Los Angeles when he was 13. LA doesnt match the Iranian capital for football passion - few cities do - but Ghotbi played and studied the game intently and before long he was developing a reputation in California for his forward-thinking and analytical approach to the game.

So much so in fact that at the age of 34, he went to the 1998 World Cup in France as part of the United States' coaching staff and watched from the sidelines as his homeland famously defeated his adopted nation.

Four years later, he was back on the global stage with Guus Hiddink as part of the South Korean set-up that reached the last four in 2002. Ghotbi then spent time working in Korea, Japan and the Netherlands, before being recalled to Korea by Dick Advocaat in November 2005.

Ghotbi keeps his cool while Dick acts the fool 

After his third World Cup and Advocaat's departure to Russia, Ghotbi stayed on to assist another Dutchman, Pim Verbeek, for the 2007 Asian Cup. After a third-place finish in Indonesia, Ghotbi decided to seek his own challenge and, for Iranians, there is no challenge bigger than Persepolis, at club level at least.

Persepolis are an Asian institution. Average attendances are around the 70,000 mark when they are doing well, but that had not been the case since 2003.

The likes of Ali Parvin, Arie Haan and Mustafa Denizli had all tried and failed, and were soon out.

So few gave Ghotbi, with little head coaching experience, a chance as he returned home for the first time in 30 years. Not all wrote him off though - he was met by around 2,000 fans at the airport and carried out on their shoulders. Part of that crowd was a mother he had not seen for three decades.

It was not just fans of Persepolis for which Ghotbi was a breath of fresh air in the musty world of Iranian football. His professional manner, his suit-wearing habits and his refusal to blame players when results went wrong impressed and excited football-lovers. The conservative establishment was suspicious of this man who had left the country prior to the revolution only to return in a wave of publicity.

Derided by detractors as a man with a laptop, he needed a good start and got one. The Reds stormed to the top of the table and looked odds on for the title. He was lauded as Afshin the Emperor everywhere he went, not something appreciated by authorities in a nation that mixes football and politics more than perhaps anywhere else.

But it was FIFA that almost did for the Reds. The world governing body imposed a six-point deduction on the club for the late payment of transfer fees; a penalty that turned the team's mid-season blip into a serious dip.

And to make matters worse, players such as Alireza Nikbakht publicly criticised tactics. In the space of a few weeks, the wheels had almost come off and leaders Sepahan were receding into the distance.

But results started to improve in the title run-in and the Isfahan club were slowly reeled in. As fate would have it, Sepahan arrived at the Azadi Stadium - home of Persepolis - on the last day of the season. They held the upper hand, only needing to avoid defeat to take the title.

And with 95 minutes played they were doing exactly that. The score was 1-1, but in one last desperate attack the impossible happened and Persepolis got the goal to send 100,000 home fans at the Azadi and millions of Reds followers around the world wild with delight.

Persepolis fans go wild in the aisles 

It was always going to be a hard act to follow for the well-travelled Ghotbi, and the second season syndrome kicked-in. Results were not bad but not as impressive as the first season, and behind-the-scenes wrangles caused Ghotbi to resign in September with less than a third of the season gone.

It was widely assumed that it would all be sorted and he would return to the club, but it never happened.

Now he is the third Iran national coach in the space of a month. The last guy resigned after just two weeks.

Only six weeks remain before the first of three qualification games that will decide Ghotbi's and Iran's fate. It is going to be some ride and another interesting chapter in the man's life.

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