• By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Perhaps no American in soccer can understand the Iranian culture, soccer and otherwise, passion and psyche better than Dan Gaspar.

After all, he lived and coached in Iran for 6 1/2 years as an assistant and goalkeeper coach under current head coach Carlos Queiroz.

“The majority of the people, they want the same freedoms that we experience here,” he said.

If Gaspar had his way, had his way, there would be no politics associated with the United States-Iran World Cup match on Tuesday.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

The modern-age animosity and tension between the two countries dates back to the 1979 Iranian Hostage crisis and it has escalated since. The Iran nuclear agreement, reached in 2015, went sideways when President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018, and both parties have struggled to reach a new settlement.

The discontent and bitterness have tried to visit the soccer pitch two previous times – at the 1998 World Cup and a 2000 friendly.  Then there’s Tuesday’s contest at Al Thumana Stadium in Doha, Qatar (FOX, 2 p.m. ET) that will determine whether who will reach the knockout round.

The U.S. men’s national team needs a victory to move on, the Iranians only a draw.

“It’s going to be an epic battle. It’s going to be historic,” he said in an interview on Monday night. “It’s going to be a game that we’re going to remember for a lifetime. It should be a special moment for many different reasons. At the end of the day, it’s going to get resolved on the field, not off the field. That’s what we have to do is filter all that noise out that’s going around both locker rooms, especially with the politics.”

Controversy after controversy

Regardless of the outcome, it seems that controversy has consumed the match well before kickoff.

In fact, it seems this confrontation has more strife and smack talk surrounding it than most World Cup group stage matches. Former USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a 1990 World Cup champion with West Germany, criticized the Iranian team and Queiroz snapped back, asking for the German to resign his position on the FIFA technical staff for this tournament.

Several Iranian players didn’t sing their national anthem prior to their opener match, protesting what is transpiring back home, stirring more controversy. U.S. Soccer took off a religious symbol from the Iranian flag in a social media post and Iran demanded that FIFA expel the USA from the World Cup. In a surreal press conference in Doha, Qatar on Monday, U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter and team captain Tyler Adams were asked more questions about politics than the game itself by the Iranian media.

And on and on it has gone.

IN TRIPLICATE: U.S.’s Dan Gaspar reaches World Cup a record third time

Dan Gaspar (sitting in the front row third from the left)  and the Iranian national team celebrate qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. (Photo courtesy of Dan Gaspar’s Facebook page)

Understanding both sides

The 67-year-old Gaspar has strong soccer ties with the two countries and has been pulled in both directions.

In the USA, Gaspar has forged a reputation as a renowned goalkeeper coach. He currently is the goalkeeper and assistant coach of the Hartford Athletic (USL Championship).

In Iran, he helped the country reach the 2014 and 2018 World Cups.

Gaspar tackled his loyalties that would make the best diplomats green with envy.

“I’m grateful for the Iran [Football] Federation for giving me a wonderful opportunity to work there for 6 1/2 years, help qualify them for two World Cups and got to have a full appreciation of the Iran people and in its culture which is truly amazing, the Persian culture,” he said.

“If I was still working for Iran, it would be like having two twins. Who do you love more Iran or the U.S.? As a professional coach, I have to go with the [Iran] federation, and with the national team that hired me to do a job; that’s to bring success in the World Cup to Iran Federation, and its people

“Now that I’m not in that position, with all due respect to Iran, and for the future of U.S. Soccer, I’m hoping that U.S. gets through the second round. I say that for the future development of this country. I think it’s critical.”

The USA will co-host the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada.

When he ventured to Iran to help out Queiroz on the national side in 2011, Gaspar received criticism, not for his professional background, but because he was an American.

 “It’s a very delicate balancing act,” he said. “In addition to being a soccer coach, I’m a human being. I believe in human rights and social justice, etc. I can tell you from my personal experience when I was in Iran, I was treated with the utmost respect. I had no challenges politically. It was a professional decision that I made. That also turned into a very good personal decision. I grew professionally as a result of my continuing time with Carlos Queiroz and with the Iran national team.

 “The World Cups that we qualified, personally, I grew because, obviously, living in Iran for 6 1/2 years that I did, and listening to newscasts and what they were claiming that Iran was like. It was two different movies that I was watching. I would go on to my apartment balcony. I looked out at Tehran and saw a city and when I speak, I’m not speaking on behalf or making comments regarding the government. I’m speaking in terms of my relationships with the Iranian people The Iranian people had the same hopes and dreams and aspirations as we do in this country.

“Unfortunately, they’re powerless against their government. They have to obey the Islamic law or there’s consequences for that publicly. They follow the rules and the laws stipulated by the government but privately behind the doors and behind the walls, they have lived a western style life. That’s what people are not aware of is what’s happening behind the curtain with the people.”

Iran has been rocked by protests following the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly violating strict hijab rules.

“There’s a minority of the people who support the government, but the majority of the people, they want the same freedoms that we experienced here,” Gaspar said. “This particular moment is historic in Iran. I always said that change wouldn’t take place unless the women were at the forefront of the movement, and as a result of the death of the Iranian woman, for not wearing the hijab, women now have stepped forward courageously and bravely to defend her right. It’s created a massive movement.”

FRONT (ROW) AND CENTER: A Q&A with Dan Gaspar about his Iranian experience

Dan Gaspar: “We have to remember that Iran national team, this current golden generation is battle tested in two previous World Cups. They’re at their peak at this moment.” (Photo courtesy of Dan Gaspar)

The Queiroz factor

Gaspar has worked with Queiroz several times in his career, including when the Mozambique native coached the MetroStars in its inaugural MLS season in 1996, and was goalkeeping coach with the Portuguese national team and Iran.

Tuesday’s contest will pit a veteran and experienced Iranian side against a young, promising American squad.

Gaspar said he was confident Queiroz will put together a proper game plan for the USA. It will be up to the players to execute it properly.

“I have no doubt and he’s proven that  in the past,” he said. “We have to remember that Iran national team, this current golden generation is battle tested in two previous World Cups. They’re at their peak at this moment.”

Gaspar noted the Asian team had played such teams as Argentina, Spain, Portugal, Uruguay, Senegal, Nigeria and Croatia.

“These players are not of the same maturity level as they did when they played their first World Cup,” he said.

“Unlike the U.S. team that’s extremely talented and players playing in top competitions; they’re still very young in this world stage. So, I think that is in Iran’s benefit. If we did not have the controversy surrounding Iran with the political environment that’s going on, I have them going through in the second group, along with England. As a result of the political climate, I know these players. They’re extremely sensitive and emotional and passionate about their country, and to see their fans criticize them in a manner that they’ve been criticized for the past month, no doubt that that’s affected their frame of mind.”

Supporters of the national team in Iran expected the squad to present a huge social message to the world in Qatar and except for not singing the country’s national anthem, it has fallen short. Hence, the severe criticism of the squad.

Passion of the people

“I’ve worked on 63 countries, and in many continents and I can tell you, the Iranians are the most passionate football fans that I’ve ever witnessed and it’s much more than just soccer,” Gaspar said. “It was Team Melli, the Iran national team, representing their country beyond the borders. Their victories brought joy and happiness to the people and that’s why the Iranian players deserve so much credit because despite the sanctions and all the obstacles and the sacrifices they have to make on a daily basis, they still play with pride and honor for the people of Iran.

“There’s a great relationship there. However, in the moment that we’re speaking now, the Iranian soccer fan, as much as they’re passionate about Team Melli, they’re more passionate about this movement of human rights and injustice for the Iranian citizens. They were expecting the Iranian players to utilize the World Cup as a platform to speak out against the government. Only one player has been courageous and brave enough to do that. But it puts players in an extremely difficult predicament. As much as their sentiment might be to support the people, they also have to realize that if they do voice their opinion, that there could be some severe consequences to them, their career and their and their family members.”

That tension resulted in a disappointing 6-2 loss to England in its group opener, which Gaspar termed a “disaster.”

“You could see the players were like zombies there,” he said. They were emotionally exhausted as a result of the social media pressure that they’ve been experiencing for the last month. They got that match out of the way and they played more openly and freely and more courageously against Wales and got the result that they needed to go into this match vs. the USA confidently. And then have Carlos Queiroz, who’s the master of mind games. He welcomes the psychological warfare, and he spins it in such a way that now the people are beginning to come back and supporting the Iran national team. It’s a 360 flip.”

Gaspar was referring to the Klinsmann incident.

The 2-0 win over Wales in the second match saved Iran’s aspirations of reaching the knockout stage.

Iranian players were so elated with the win they threw Queiroz up in the air and caught him several times.

“This is not his first rodeo,” Gaspar said. “He’s well experienced, and I think he’s demonstrated that up to this point.”

Asked to make a prediction on the match, Gaspar declined.

“I’m not good at that, “he said. “I’ve proven that to myself with the predictions that I’ve made so far with the matches that I’ve observed. I would desire that this is a game that entertains, a game that will last a lifetime in our memories. It’s a game that no doubt will have incredible amount of intensity and responsibility.

“It’s really the team that can remain cool when things get hot. The team that’s able to remain focused with full concentration is a team that’s going to prevail. The team that makes the least amount of mistakes, is a team that’s going to prevail.”