Katayoun Khosrowyar, the head coach of the Iranian Under-19 Women’s National Football Team, starts off our conversation by telling me about the all-consuming nature of her job: “When you coach a team you no longer belong to yourself. The girls come and go and I never allow myself to not answer their questions.” When she speaks, there’s a hint of an American accent in her Persian.
Khosrowyar first played for the Women’s National Football Team of Iran, and then went into coaching. She was the first Iranian and the first Middle Eastern woman to earn her FIFA A-license to coach and is currently the head coach of the under-19 women’s squad.
Katayoun Khosrowyar was born on September 19, 1987 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to an Iranian father and an American mother, but when I try to suggest she is from a “mixed” background, she says she doesn’t know what I’m talking about and proudly declares: “I am an Iranian.” Her parents separated early on, and she lived with her father. “I am proud to say that my father raised me,” she tells me.
Khosrowyar holds a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. In a 2018 interview she described herself as a "Midwest girl,” and yet, this “Iranian” has been living in Iran since 2005. She still visits the US occasionally, to catch up on business matters and to visit friends and relatives.
Ahead of the qualifying games for the 2019 Asian Youth Games, I talked to Khosrowyar about her vision for her players' futures, and how far women's football has come since her arrival in Iran 14 years ago.
You came to Iran in 2005 and immediately started playing football. Had you received an offer from Iran?
No. I received no offers. Everything happened by chance. That year, in the state where I lived, I succeeded in getting a university scholarship. I was a member of our club’s team and I wanted to make my way to the university team little by little. I said to myself that I should go to Iran one last time and visit my family before I seriously got involved in my studies and university. I thought perhaps I would not get a chance to visit Iran and see my family for a few years. But I came and I stayed.
It was that simple?
Exactly that easy. I came and suddenly fell in love with Iran. The first thing I asked was whether Iran had a women’s football team. They are just forming one, they said. I followed it up and found out that it had really happened and that teams for girls had also been formed. I thought in the US I could have a normal life, study football for a few years, play football and then go into coaching football. In Iran I had all those choices plus a new direction — to make history and make something to be remembered by.
In the US you had received a scholarship. In fact, everything was set up for you. In Iran you had to start from zero.
In one word, the US was perfect for me. It had everything and still does. I did not have to fight for anything. The practice field was perfect, the atmosphere was perfect and the practice ball was perfect. I could leave home and dribble the ball on my way to the university. I know all this. But I preferred to choose a different world. At that time everything was 180 degrees different, but now many things have happened and Iran has changed a lot. At the time we did not even have a practice ball.
But nobody was able to see your efforts and these changes. Perhaps many still have not seen it. You like challenges. This is something that people around you agree on.
Exactly. Exactly. Right now if you give me 10 choices I would pick the most difficult one. I have always been this way. Since childhood I liked to do things that nobody else wanted to touch. If you ask me what kind of lifestyle I like, I would say a lifestyle full of challenges.
Fighting and taking on challenges are done to achieve something. Looking back at the 14 years that you have been in Iran, are you happy with your choice? Have you achieved what you wanted to achieve?
I am satisfied and I have achieved my goals to a degree. I was invited to [play for] Iran’s national team, and played and scored goals. This honor is not a small honor. It was in Iran that I went into coaching. Today we have 40 professional footballers in the national youth team, chosen from among 15,0000 young female footballers. This is not a small thing. When I came to Iran, if you had told anybody that in 14 years Iran would have 15,000 female footballers at the youth level, nobody would have believed you. Of course, this was not just my doing. Iranian society moved in a direction so that women are seen more. Support for women has increased day by day.
Was increasing support for women’s rights one of your goals?
Goal? Yes, a goal and a wish. But I am looking at my own unique field. The support has really increased compared to the past. Let me make a joke. Dr. [Leila] Soofizadeh [the Iranian Football Federation’s Vice President for Women] was not a fan of football at all but we made her a football fan! [She laughs]. Messrs. Shakouri and Saket [general secretaries of Iran’s football federation] have changed their views about women’s football completely. In the past Mr. Saket only went to the practices of the men’s national team but now he is always with us. Don’t you think this shows that views have changed?
I heard that Carlos Queiroz [until very recently, the manager for Iran’s national men’s team] also helped you and gave you advice?
Carlos supported me a lot. He watched our practices and talked to me about negative and positive points. When he was in Iran he had time for us, too. Of course, this was not in his contract, but he liked to help the women’s team.
You said you have achieved some of your goals, but not others.
Yes, the World Cup still remains. I have to reach the World Cup before I die — of course with the Iran team.
For a woman who is looking for new challenges, will it end after the World Cup?
No. It will not end after the World Cup. Look, I am a young Iranian in my own country. Under my management, I have 23 players whom I always call my little sisters. I must be their role model — of course, if they believe that I can be a good role model for their lives. I want to nurture them in the best possible way.
It is not all about football. We must live right, we must grow up right and we must gain the power to influence. We must believe that no borders separate us from others. Whether inside the country or outside, we must prove that we see things correctly. I always tell the girls to believe in themselves. You might not believe it, but future presidents, government ministers and members of parliament are going to emerge from among these young women. But they must believe it first.
Very visionary and beautiful! When you visit the US, don’t your friends, relatives, old neighbors and classmates ask what you are doing in Iran?
Yes, a lot. Well, I tell them to talk to the “Iranian ambassador to the US.” That is what I call myself. I am sorry that nobody has the right image of Iran. The images and propaganda have been very negative and the Americans believe everything that they see through the TV. I tell them that I am very happy in Iran. I go mountain climbing, I go skiing, I go to the beach, to coffee shops and to traditional cafés. Unfortunately, I am never home. You will always find me having a good time. Don’t you think that Iran is beautiful?
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