The manager of Iran’s national football team, Carlos Queiroz, has repeatedly butted heads with Iran’s Football Federation, the Ministry of Sport, and Iranian officials with firm ideas of how the team should conduct itself in public — from what they wear to comments they give to the media.
Queiroz, who has led the team since 2011 after managing the Portugual’s national team and Real Madrid and coaching at Manchester United, has threatened to leave the post on several occasions, including at the end of the national team’s World Cup campaign in 2014.
In a six-part series, Payan Yunesipour tells the story of Carlos Queiroz, his battles with Iran’s mercurial sporting authorities, and his efforts to boost the prospects of Iranian football on the international stage.
In the first installment, the author looks at how Queiroz came to be appointed as manager, the secrecy that surrounds the Iranian Football Federation’s inner workings, and why some of Iran’s sporting officials were skeptical about a non-Iranian leading the national team.
It was characteristic that Ali Kafashian, head of Iran’s Football Federation until May 2016, to always leave his office door open. Nobody had to wait outside unless he had a meeting with the board of the federation or a special guest from FIFA, or the Asian Football Federation was visiting. Once, in a meeting with the board of the federation, he shouted, “Why does the federation need to have an informer?”
Mehdi Taj, who was Kafashian’s deputy at that time, responded. “Well, close the door to your office and there won’t be any informers!”
During his time as president, Ali Kafashian was rarely seen sitting behind his desk. From the start of his eight-year tenure, he suffered impositions. First former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad forced him to accept Ali Daei as the head coach of the national football team. Later, he was instructed to remove Ali Daei when Mohammad Aliabadi, then chairman of Iran’s Physical Education Organization, ordered him to do so.
Aliabadi wanted the footballer Mohammad Mayeli Kohan to be the head coach and Kafashian had no choice but to comply. But two weeks later, he used a letter written by Mayeli Kohan that ridiculed Amir Ghalenoei, the manager of Esteghlal Football Team, to remove Kohan as head coach. Then, under pressure from the federation’s board and Mehdi Taj, he gave the job to Afshin Ghotbi.
In the end, however, Iran did not qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Kafashian was left with a frustrated federation. “Our first choice is an Iranian head coach,” he said repeatedly in interviews. Perhaps this was what inspired football commentator Adel Ferdosipour, the host of the popular TV program 90, to quip: “But you still don’t have the authority to lift the glass of water in front of you.” He was alluding to the fact that Kafashian had to both appoint and remove Ali Daei by orders from above.
But this time, the situation was a little different. Afshin Ghotbi still held a contract with Iran’s National Football Team, but he had also signed a three-year contract with a Japanese football club and did not take part in the 2011 Asian Cup, which was held in the United Arab Emirates. Instead, Alireza Mansourian was sent as the interim head coach. Iran was eliminated when it lost 0-1 to South Korea on January 22, 2011. Then, on February 9, Iran won 1-0 in a friendly game against Russia in Abu Dhabi.
The Iranian win was a surprise to many, but something else caught the attention of reporters covering the match: the presence of Carlos Manuel Brito Leal Queiroz, the former head coach of Real Madrid and Manchester United amid reports that he was to be the next manager for the Iranian National Football Team.
Kafashian, however, would have none of it. On one of those many days when he left his office door open for guests and employees to come and go as they pleased, he sat down to talk to two reporters (including this writer). His mobile phone was ringing non-stop. He picked up the phone, glanced at the display and put it back on the desk. He got up to do something and then returned. Then we got into a friendly chat about choosing a head coach for Iran’s national team. “Only an Iranian coach,” he said, and laughed.
When we pressed him, he picked up his mobile phone and said: “Look! Since early in the morning, 10 MPs have called to tell me to make this or that person head coach. For the first time, I have full authority. I was told to ‘bring in a big-name coach. We will pay for it.’ But for the moment I am telling everybody that this coach must be an Iranian.”
The agenda, however, was clear. The federation wanted a big-name coach.
The Football Federation established a Technical Committee in January 2011. It was comprised of the football coach Human Afazeli, the Persepolis striker Fereydoon Moini, football instructor Morteza Mohasses and Mohammad Ehsani, head of the training program at the federation. Abbas Torabian, a former manager at the Ministry of Petroleum team joined them later. He was given the responsibility of foreign negotiations and information gathering. Mehdi Mohammad Nabi, the secretary general of the federation at the time, was responsible for information security. Besides these people and Ali Kafashian, no one else was supposed to know anything about the negotiations taking place, not even Kafashian’s vice president Mehdi Taj. Kafashian reported directly to Ali Saeedlou, the head of Iran’s Physical Education Organization.
Human Afazeli was the first one to talk, allegedly telling an old friend that one of the candidates was “extraordinary.” He added: “Enough to say that he has been both with Real Madrid and Manchester United.”
But who besides Carlos Queiroz had coached both Real Madrid and Manchester United?
At the time, the football federation was negotiating with Carlos Queiroz, the Turkish team manager Fatih Terim and Carlos Alberto Gomes Parreira, the Brazilian football manager.
Queiroz has been married for almost 40 years to an Iranian woman, Leila. He was willing to try the birth country of his spouse as his next destination. Fatih Terim had also expressed interest in coaching the Iranian team. Eventually, Abbas Torabian travelled to Lisbon and met Queiroz at the Iranian embassy.
In a radio interview given in early 2011, Abbas Torabian disclosed details of negotiations with Queiroz. “I invited Queiroz to watch the game between Iran and Russia in the UAE,” he said. “We paid for his trip to the UAE, but later we also met in Lisbon. He told me he had heard that people of Tehran were still riding camels to move around. I invited him to be our guest in Tehran for just one day. He came, he saw Tehran. When he was leaving he said he had changed his view completely.”
Ali Saeedlou, as the head of Physical Education Organization, conducted early negotiations with Queiroz. Afterward, he promised Kafashian that all expenses for hiring him as the head coach would be provided. "Even if the organization breaks its promise and pays only half the expenses we can afford to hire Queiroz,” Kafashian told the board of Iran’s Football Federation.
The annual salary that Queiroz asked for after visiting Tehran was €2 million.
The contract was drawn up and sent out. But when Queiroz responded, his reply but the reply surprised everyone. “My wife is against me going to Iran,” he wrote in a kindly-worded letter to Kafashian.
“I am feeling the fatigue of a lifetime,” Torabian told the TV show 90 the same night.
“Then our next coach is undoubtedly going to be an Iranian,” Kafashian said on the same program via a phone interview. But just as he was commenting on this assumed inevitability, the federation’s secretary general Mohammad Mehdi entered into direct negotiations with Queiroz. The provisions of the contract were slightly changed to accommodate Queiroz’s most important demands: “The contract is null and void in case of a foreign or civil war. The head coach is authorized to select his own assistants. Unless the conditions are met the contract is terminated.”
In mid-March 2011, Torabian traveled to Portugal to continue negotiations directly. The result was a contract that stipulated that Queiroz would manage the Iranian National Football Team for three and a half years, and that each year the contract could be renewed or terminated.
“What was necessary for a contract with Queiroz has been achieved,” a happy-sounding Kafashian told the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) after the agreement was reached. “Only minor differences remain.”
But what was of key interest is how the signing of the contract was presented to the media. Queiroz arrived in Tehran on April 4, 2011. He sat next to Ali Saeedlou, head of Iran’s Physical Education Organization, and signed the contract. The first photo of the event to appear in the media showed Queiroz and Saeedlou shaking hands. Kafashian was nowhere to be seen.
Saeedlou was so overjoyed by his meeting with the big-name Portuguese coach that he praised him to heaven. “It’s like the Iranian people have known you for 50 years,” ISNA quoted him as saying on the same day as the meeting. “Your record in the field of international football is so good.”
However, this was one of the last times Queiroz received such praise from an Iranian official. From then on, little by little, things began to change.
Read part two: Generational Change and Change in Management