John Duerden, goal.com
Afshin Ghotbi recently left his position as South Korean assistant coach to take over Iranian giants Persepolis. Born in Iran, the 43 year-old left his homeland for America in 1977 and went to the 1998 World Cup with the United States and the 2002 and 2006 World Cups with South Korea.
How do you feel about leaving Korea for Iran?
I think I am numb at this moment. I feel excited because of a new challenge and going back to my home country that I havenâ€™t seen for 30 years. I also feel sadness because I have so many memories in Korea and so many experiences. Itâ€™s hard to leave the Korean players as I am always impressed by their mentality and their willingness to learn.
I am excited because I will be head coach of a team and more than that the biggest club in Iran and probably one of the biggest in Asia. They have such history and I remember that as a child. Even when I was a little boy playing in the street, it was always the Reds (Persepolis) against the Blues (Esteghlal).
Which colour were you?
Iâ€™m red now! (laughs)
This is the third time you have left Koreaâ€¦
Yes. I left after the 2002 World Cup and I thought then that I would never come back but I came back just two weeks later. That contract finished in 2004 and I went to LA Galaxy and when Advocaat came I returned in the fall of 2005.
So on your past record, we can expect to see you back here in three or four months?
(laughs) I hope it will be a little longer than that.
Are you more sorry to leave this time than in the past?
Yes. I think of Korea as a home. Of course I always have Iran and America because thatâ€™s where I spent most of my life but Korea has a special place in my heart.
When did Persepolis first contact you?
Persepolis have been interested in me for the past three or four months. It started with a journalist-slash-businessman calling me and asking me if I was interested in the job. He told me that the club was interested but at that time I had my contract in Korea and also my commitment to the Asian Cup. I wanted to see that through and I left it open and vague about my commitments and leaving Korea and going there.
After the Asian Cup finished, the negotiations became very serious.
When you first heard of the interest, what was your initial reaction?
I was flattered and a little puzzled. To be wanted by such a big club in your own country was very interesting for me.
Would it be like a Korean leaving to go to America at the age of 13 and returning home 30 years later to take over a team like Suwon?
I think it would be a little bit bigger than that. The passion and love for football in Iran, is, I think, much greater than it is in Korea. If you look at the support that K-League teams get, it is different that the support in the Iranian league. Every boy in Iran wants to play football and like in England where there is so much history behind teams like Liverpool and Manchester United, the Iranian clubs have a lot of history- the father and the grandfather have a sense of pride for their clubs.
It is also an interesting time to go to Iran because there have been disappointment with their results at the 2006 World Cup and the 2007 Asian Cup, there is a big push to rebuild Iranian football. They have tried foreign coaches but now they are looking to young Iranians with international experience. It is the right moment for me to take this challenge.
It is the first time as a head coach.
At a big club yes. I have coached at university, second division level and youth level.
Returning to your homeland after 30 years and a first time as head coach and at a big club too, it is going to be a new kind of pressure.
I love pressure, thatâ€™s why I do what I do. I have had enough mentors and enough experience working at three different World Cups with some very good coaches. I think if anybody is fit for this job then I am.
When I think back to the Japan- Korea match at the Asian Cup. The head coach was kicked out, the goalkeeper coach was kicked out, Hong Myong-bo was kicked out, we are playing ten against eleven against a team that was at the time outplaying us. They had more control of the game. We had already used one substitute and with the red card we had to use another substitute so we have only one left and there are 30 minutes of regulation time remaining. That was a very lonely place to be as an assistant coach taking over the team. There was a lot of stake â€“ itâ€™s Korea and Japan and the winner automatically qualifies for the 2011 Asian Cup.
I think if someone can handle that and come up with a win then I think they can do many things.
What was your first thought when four of the Korean team and coaching staff were sent off?
My first thought was that I had no choice but to stand up and go to the touchline and try to organize the team tactically. We tried to manage the game. Managing the game is something that Asian teams have problems with, trying to keep the ball at the right moments and counter-attack at the right moment, slow the game down so we can recover, find out who is fit, changes we had to think about. It was a great moment for me. I loved it, I loved the pressure and the stakes were high.
I donâ€™t think I have ever seen that before- three people from the bench ordered off.
Yes. I kept talking to the fourth official, trying to change the momentum of the officiating. I said â€˜Iâ€™ve been in football a long time and Iâ€™ve never seen three coaches kicked out.â€ He looked at me and said â€œneither have I!â€
I think you canâ€™t be reactive at that moment, you have to be pro-active. The players were exhausted and they needed a leader on the sideline to give them energy, to constantly encourage them and get them to take the right positions. When you are tired, it is easy to take the wrong positions. We played it beautifully. We were dangerous at times and we stayed organized then we lost another to injury and then Lee Chun-soo had rib problems, Oh Beom-seok had calf problems and Lee Woon â€“jae had hamstring problems.
What did Pim Verbeek say to get sent off?
I donâ€™t want to say, children will read this! The officiating could have been better. There was a lot of stake and all of us were exhausted from a long tournament. Having the tournament in four countries placed stress and burdens on the players and the coaching staff.
What kind of practical problems?
First of all, you have four different countries, four different kinds of politics and different logistics. There are only 16 teams, it makes no sense to have four teams in each country and then have them travel around in the knockout stage. I can give you some examples â€“when we arrived at the training ground in Jakarta, the training pitch was worse than any amateur pitch. We went to the stadium before any game had been played and it looked like there had been a full season of games played on it. It was very bumpy with different kinds if grass growing on it, maybe five different kinds. Theyâ€™ve cut it where one stripe as one height and the next stripe is a different height so television cameras could see different colours and that makes absolutely sense for the players because the ball is changing speeds as it travels through the grass at different levels.
Then we were supposed to have a closed training session but there were a 1,000 people watching. Having four teams in the same hotel makes no sense.
Then we traveled to Malaysia and then realized that some of the coaches and staff didnâ€™t have enough rooms. So then they had to move us to a different hotel and a two-hour day turned into a 14 hour day for the coaches and a 12-hour day for the players. With only a three-day break between games, this doesnâ€™t help the players.
Having referees referee us for two or three games creates awkward situations. In the Iran and Korea game, having a referee from UAE, this makes no sense as some Iranian players play there and can speak Arabic, so they can influence. Weâ€™re playing Iraq with a Kuwaiti referee. These are recipes for questions.
The AFC has to do a better job of managing these tournaments. The sponsorship was fantastic and they did a great job of finding sponsors but what happened to selling tickets? For a top player playing in an empty stadium, it doesnâ€™t motivate them so much. I think pitch conditions, logistics, empty stadiums and the decisions taken with referees needs to improve. If Asia is to be the future of football then we need to be a lot more responsible.
The game against Indonesia was fantastic and we need more of those kinds of games but the semi-final in Malaysia, most of the stadium was empty. If you have the tournament in one country, itâ€™s easier to build energy, if we put the tournament in cities attractive for tourists.
Our 3/4 place play-off against Japan in Palembang and with all respect to Palembang it was in the middle of nowhere. The players had to fly from Malaysia to Jakarta and then take another flight to Palembang and then take a bus ride through farmland â€“ it makes no sense.
If Verbeek had stayed, would you?
Good question and itâ€™s difficult for me to answer because thatâ€™s not the case. Part of me wanted to say, because, as I mentioned to Pim, because I feel we have planted a fantastic foundation for the future of Korean football and 2010. The fruit of what we have done will be seen in 2010. We have introduced players that were unknowns â€“ players like Kim Chi-woo, Kim Jin-kyu, Oh beom-seok and Kang Min-soo were fantastic. Son Dae-ho was introduced and he is not very young but based on his experience, you can see a bright future in international football for him in the next 5-6 years.
My feeling is that the foundation was set. We were playing a certain organization, everybody knew their role and understood the positions they needed to take in defence and attack, we made it very easy for them. I just wish that the Korean media and the fans could understand the evolution that is necessary to build a fantastic team.
The Korean team was a young team and achieved much more than people gave them credit for. They played Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq â€“ the top four teams. We didnâ€™t lose a game. With a little bit more luck, more sharpness and innovation in attack, it was a tournament that we could have won.
But for the fans and the media, it is difficult to get excited about a team that scores only three goals in six gamesâ€¦
If you win the penalties and go to the final and score once and win the tournament, then what would people say? What would people say if you go to the final and donâ€™t score and defeat Saudi Arabia on penalties? We all wanted to score more goals but the reality is who is scoring goals in the K-League? The reality is which Korean player is consistently scoring goals at the top level?
As long as in the K-League the best strikers are foreigners, as long as Korean strikers abroad are sitting on the bench, itâ€™s very difficult to produce top goalscorers for the national team when you are getting two, three day and two-week preparations before major tournaments and try to compete with the best teams in the world and Asia.
So you would ask the K-League coaches to give the national team more preparation time and also to play young strikers more than they do now?
Yes. Take Shin Young-rok as an example. Heâ€™s been a very promising striker sicne he was 16 and I met him at Suwon. It is very difficult for him to get in the first team. If Suwon really have the playerâ€™s greatest interest at heart and the development of Korean football at heeart, they can take some decisions to help him â€“either give him as many opportunities as possible in the first team or loan or sell him to a different club where he can start. I can understand this, they want to make the deepest squad and win things and they think â€˜why should we give a good player away to another team?â€™
We have to use more innovation and ingenuity in attack.
How can this be done? How can you create creativity?
It starts at the youth level and the selection of players that are youthful and creative. It starts with a training environment where they are given chances to take decisions. I have worked in the K-League and they are trained to be mechanical, they are trained not to take risks, not to make decisions, follow orders and that is a reflection of the society. Those are things that Hiddink started talking about in 2001, trying to break down the heirachy in football and the relationship between older players and younger players.
The same thing is true in the relationship between coaches and players. One of the reasons all the players liked Pim Verbeek was that they were excited that we gave them training that stimulated their mind, we gave them freedom to speak and take action on the pitch and people appreciate that.
You must select players with quality. Then next is to create a training environment that is beyond running up and down mountains and around fields for hours.
There are not many players in the K-League who currently have the ability to create and make something out of nothing. Two that do are Ahn Jung-hwan and Lee Kwan-woo of Suwon but they werenâ€™t selected for the Asian Cup. Do you think they may have made a difference?
Yes but at the time when the selections were made, it was all about the form of the players and how often they were playing. There is no question that Ahn Jung-hwan has innovation and creativity but he was not getting games. He didnâ€™t start so many matches. Maybe some coaches would have said they believed in the player and brought him in but then maybe you need longer preparation time.
We really felt that our selection had versatility â€“literally two players for each position and three for the central strikers. We thought we had the players we needed but then we were hit with injuries that we didnâ€™t count on and we hit some bumps and some things didnâ€™t go our way.
Then we saw Cho Jae-jin hit two goals against Uzbekistan and we thought â€˜wow, what an impressive first 50 minutes we played’ and we were very excited about it. Football is a funny game and Bora says it best â€“ â€˜one plus one is not two on footballâ€™ and heâ€™s right.
Without Pim, would you have been interested in staying in Korea?
When Pim left, it almost pushed me to the direction that it was time to go. The only way I would have stayed would have been as head coach of the Olympic team and I was not even considered for that. That was disappointing. I think they only considered me as an assistant. So I thought it was time for me to leave Korea and try somewhere else.
Why do you think you were not considered?
You have to ask them but I think that it has a lot to do with the fact that in 2002 I was pigeonholed as an analyst, as a guy with computers. With time, I showed that I can do a job on the pitch â€“ I am a football coach. In Korea, once you are labelled as one thing, it is difficult for them to realize that you have other qualities.
I think there was a definite decision on the part of the KFA to hire a Korean coach for the Olympic team.
So do I. Being labelled, being a foreigner and perhaps my age had something to do with out. I have no hard feelings about it. The federation has been really good to me. I love some of the people in there. There is a lot of intelligence in the federation â€“including Dr Chung. He is the ideal boss â€“ his passion for the game, his funding for football in this country, including the 2002 World Cup. Korean football would never be where itâ€™s at without him.
Will you come back to Korea?
I have a gut feeling that one day Iâ€™ll be back. I still have unfinished business here and havenâ€™t achieved all I want to achieve.
If you were to coach a K-League club, what would be the first thing that you would change?
I would create an exciting environment for the players to improve every game. I would play more continental football; at times we saw that with the Olympic team. I would give younger players a chance.
When you and Pim started a year ago â€“ what was your long-term plan?
It was to win the Asian Cup and create a different kind of football. Pim tried to bring for the first time to bring zonal defending to Korea, to stop our players chasing others all round the pitch. That saves energy and made us a better team defensively as you saw in the Asian Cup. We tried to bring defenders that were intelligent and could hold the ball. We achieved those things. What we didnâ€™t achieve was being more dangerous in the final third. In every team, that is the final part and takes time. If we had longer, we would have achieved that I think.
How would you have achieved that- what would have been the next step?
You have to try to work with the K-league teams and get more preparation time and challenge the young Korean players to get more playing time. Working with them and encouraging them to go to teams where they can play and look into the sky and look for inspiration. As national team coaches, your hands are tied, you donâ€™t have enough time.
As time have passed since 2002, have you seen attitudes in the K-League change toward the national team?
I saw it with Advocaat, then the teams were unwilling to give the players and then with Pim it got tougher and tougher. One thing that I want to stress is that Korean football is not like France, England or Italy. If Korean football wants to succeed on the international stage they need longer periods of training together. The Korean way to win is to win as a team and be organized as a team because individually, the players are not playing at the level of the English, French or Spanish players. So for them to have a two-day training camp is going to be difficult for them to beat the big teams.
If youâ€™re going to do that, thatâ€™s OK but then lower your expectations but if you want to compete against the big teams you need to give the national team more time.
When did you know Pim was going to leave?
About a day before he announced it.
What was your reaction?
I was surprised but he is one of my best friends and I want what is best for him.
Lee Dong-guk has gone to a foreign team and hasnâ€™t played and it is looking like it will be a similar situation this season. Is that good for a player?
Players have to play. If he is not playing then with the busy fixtures in English football are a problem. The first team are often playing twice a week so thereâ€™s not much happening in training and you can only improve so much by playing in small groups.
Which young Korean players have a bright future?
The backline. The Olympic goalkeeper is often the best in training. Then there is Oh Beom-seok, Kim Jin-kyu, Kim Chi-woo, Oh Jang-eun, Son Dae-ho, Kang Min-soo, Yeom Ki-hoon, they all have great futures. There are a lot of exciting young players.
Should Korea go for a foreign coach?
Definitely, for two reasons. A foreign coach will have less internal influences from agents, friends at universities, K-League coaches. Second, we still donâ€™t have a Korean coach will enough international experience with global thinking and to deal with the modern Korean player that is playing abroad and getting a lot of money. Tacticlaly, they donâ€™t have enough experience, they have played almost the same football for a long time. Tactically, you need more experience and variety. Not too many Korean coaches have had that kind of exposure.