Over the past four years, I have interviewed Afshin Ghotbi at different times. We talked when he was with Galaxy in MLS, then a few times when he was appointed as an assistant coach of Korean national team and then at the beginning of his time with Perspolis.
When I spoke to him on April 16th, I found a different Afshin. Clearly, the difficulties of Perspolis over the last ten weeks have impacted him. His eternal optimism has turned into guarded optimism. Ghotbi feels at peace with what he has done for the club yet one can feel the hurt in his voice about certain events.
Incidentally, this was the first time our entire interview was conducted in Farsi.
Kaveh - Perspolis finished the midseason at the top and showed a sustainable winning form. Over the first ten weeks of the second half, the team has not played well, has not earned sufficient points and is on a dangerous downhill slope. What are the factors for such showings?
Afshin – It is not that complex to review the factors. Let me numerate the most important ones:
1 – The six point deduction (by FIFA) broke our team spirit. We were penalized for the prior years’ shortcomings. Losing the six points meant that we lost most of our advantage in the table and other teams found themselves in the hunt for the league championship.
2 – Everyone always plays tough against Perspolis but our winnings meant that they play us tougher now.
3 – Team’s success and popularity of the players who didn’t have such exposure in smaller clubs broke their concentration. Some could not handle such pressure.
4- National team camps directly impacted us. We had 9 players for the first camp. They were 9 of our starting 11. While these nine players were gone, the rest of the team could not practice properly. Then, most of them didn’t play for the national team. In the subsequent camps, 5 or 6 players were invited.
Now, when you have these players leave us for a few days, end up not playing and then spend another day to return home you end up with a big part of your club returning two days before a match with a lost practice week.
5 – Our football is not truly professional. We are not prepared to play 34 matches. There is not enough discipline within the infrastructure to hold such long season.
Kaveh – But many of the factors you outlined exist for other popular teams. Why should it be more difficult for Perspolis?
Afshin – The (Hashyeeh) “side issues” is unbelievable at Perspolis. Some papers write quotes on behalf of players criticizing their teammates when such conversations never took place. Quotes have been attributed to me about other coaches and players that I never made. That is how team’s concentration breaks down. Such issues then are brought into the locker room and we have to deal with them. This has been a daily challenge. Also, let’s say I hold a private conversation in the locker room. The meeting ends and within 10 minutes the news gets everywhere and a reporter calls me to ask about it. Big popular clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid have similar pressures from their fans and media but I doubt such degree of information flow would exist anywhere else as it is for Perspolis.
Kaveh – I understand your comments however the reality is that Perspolis has played poorly in the second half and unlike the first half has not gotten the results. As an example, the 4 -1 loss in Ahvaz is inexcusable.
Afshin – I don’t disagree that we have not done well in the second half. Let me answer your question this way. In football, a single event, a simple play, could change the course of the game and sometimes the season. Look at the game against Esteghlal of Ahvaz. We knew that Esteghlal Ahvaz at home was tough to play and Perspolis had not won there for years. We knew that we had to weather the first 20 minutes of the match. There was an incredible pressure on us. Then Khorsandi had a golden opportunity and missed it. That moment would have changed the game. Toward the end of the half we gave up a bad goal. That was like an arrow in the heart of the team. At half time I stressed the importance of first fifteen minutes but we gave up another goal due to mistakes and an amazing shot on the goal. If we were a cat we would have lost a few of our lives by then.
I have to tell you that Esteghlal of Ahvaz was the better team in that match. This is important to state. We made our mistakes and we lost.
1 - We made defensive mistakes
2- We didn’t take advantage of our opportunities
3 – We didn’t exhibit a level of energy and concentration that is needed to win in such matches.
Kaveh – You certainly didn’t play “international football”, did you?
Afshin – Rather than playing with the heart of a lion we played with the heart of a cat. No we didn’t play international football at all.
Kaveh – How will you solve all these problems? Where do you start? Can you solve them?
Afshin – It is not too complex. The coaching staff and the club need to coordinate with each other and we are. Players who do not respect the team’s discipline will be dealt with.
Kaveh – Will they be fired like Shaes Rezai?
Afshin – You don’t have to always fire such players. You bench them. The discipline has to be the same for all players. Players’ names and how long they have been with the team should not be a reason for them to disrespect the team and the internal team structure. We need 11 players like Karim Bagheri. We need players whose heart is with the team, practice hard, care about the club and the fans. We need to be consistent in our games like how we were in the second half against Abumoslem or 20 minutes against Esteghlal. Discipline and consistency will make our football better but such practice will make our players, our clubs and even reporters better. Perspolis is a special club. We have 30 million fans. When a young player comes to play for Perspolis and he plays well in a game, his name and face becomes known in the city. It is difficult to keep the concentration. We need to teach our players over time so that we could become professional.
Kaveh – You speak of discipline but you only fired one player. Surely there should be others who deserve to be fired.
Afshin – That is true but there are those players who know they are under microscope. Club’s disciplinary committee will deal with such issues. You know, when the disciplinary committee penalizes a player, the financial penalty takes effect at the end of the season. I have asked to change that process and make the penalty effective immediately.
Kaveh – With all the problems you have described, it sounds pretty tough out there.
Afshin – After the loss to Esteghlal of Ahvaz, the overwhelming majority of the fans continued to support me and the club. They have been so gracious. The support and love they have shown touched my heart. It was easy for me to quit after that loss but I am more committed now than before to do my best for success in this season.
Kaveh – Let’s talk discipline. In the mid season, you wanted to fire Marzban (one of the club coaches). Yet, the management brought him back. Doesn’t such event directly impact your authority in the club house?
Afshin – Of course it does (Afshin paused at this point and then continued). I make my decisions for the good of the club. I am trying to practice what I have learned over the years from great coaches in many international level conditions.
Kaveh – Here is another one. Your star player (Nikbakht Vahedi) went on TV shows and criticized you. I can’t imagine Cristiano Ronaldo would do that and get away with it at Manchester United. Why didn’t the club deal with such unprofessional behaviors?
Afshin – Well the club did. The Disciplinary Committee penalized him. You know what is strange to me? Several of our players like Nikbakht or Aghai or Khalili have had a real good year. They have been invited to the national team. Our success would help them and help their popularity and marketability. I am amazed then why would someone like Alireza (Nikbakht Vahedi) whom I believe could single handedly influence a match would go and make those statements about me (his current coach).
Kaveh – How difficult is it nowadays to coach on week to week basis. The feeling is that one more loss could be your last match as a head coach for Perspolis?
Afshin – A professional coach shouldn’t worry about such things. When you work for big and popular clubs, you have to expect the pressure and the consequences. That goes with the territory.
Kaveh – Let me ask you a “tired” question as it has been asked many times yet now seem to be even more appropriate to ask. Do you feel you have had Estili’s support throughout the season?
Afshin – I have considered and treated Estili like a brother. Mr. Kashani (Club chairman) and Estili (team’s coach) brought me here. I need Hamid’s (Estili) help. Perspolis’ success is for all the current players, coaches, staff and fans as well as all those who have ever played or been associated with the club. It is really strange for me to think that a Perspolis icon who has been so involved with the team for so many years would work against his beloved club. I don’t believe it.
Kaveh – Things have gotten personal with you. Your laptop was broken in your office. Do you have any idea who did it?
Afshin – That is true. It was broken intentionally by someone from inside the club (then pause).
Kaveh – What is Afshin Ghotbi’s future in Iranian football?
Afshin – This is a good question. I think a lot of that has to do with the next 7 weeks. I came back to Iran after so many years to contribute to my country’s football. It is very difficult to do so in one year. I have learned so much about Iran’s football. My Farsi has improved (with a laugh). I would like to continue on working in Iran but again I think a lot has to do with the rest of the season.
Kaveh – Thanks for your time. As you said, the next 7 matches are important and the key is your next match against Malavan. Good luck.
Afshin – Thank you. I really want to thank our fans. No matter how the rest of the season goes, their daily support has been my source of energy. I hope they come in masses for our six home games and give us the needed energy.
Note by Kaveh: Even though the interview was long, I felt that Afshin could have and had a lot more to talk about. The first half of the season was dreamlike for him but in the second half much has gone wrong. He needs a successful seven matches and he and the club need to take it one game at a time. Afshin Ghotbi must now stand firm in his positions and not allow individual players drag with them the team and millions of fans.