‘It’s a way of life’: Vancouver FC coach Afshin Ghotbi reflects on passion, unifying power of soccer

Ten years ago, Afshin Ghotbi was looking for a striker. As manager of Japanese club Shimizu S-Pulse at the time, Ghotbi needed a player who could get on the end of crosses into the box.

One European scout offered up a name: Rob Friend. The Canadian forward had been scoring consistently in Germany, and Ghotbi was immediately impressed. Watching film, Ghotbi saw a player who could certainly score some goals for him in Japan.

“I was intrigued with his last name,” Ghotbi told this week. “I thought, if someone’s last name is Friend, I must get to know him because that’s a very unique last name.”

Unfortunately, Friend’s transfer to Japan never quite worked out for various reasons. That wouldn’t be the end of his relationship with Ghotbi, though.

Fast forward to 2022, and Ghotbi has officially been unveiled as the first head coach of Friend’s new Canadian Premier League club, Vancouver FC. The two had remained in contact since they first met in 2012, and at last now the timing is right for them to work together.

Friend explained that, while looking for someone to helm this expansion side, he cast a wide net in his coaching search, but ultimately Ghotbi was too perfect a candidate to pass up.

“Part of the process was giving Canadian coaches an opportunity to be interviewed,” Friend said. “As a proud Canadian, we went through the process. But ultimately, who was ready to take on this massive challenge? Afshin sort of landed in our lap, and this is a guy who has a huge international resumé. Been around the world, and understands the global game, the highs and lows of that. Been through it all, coached with a translator. A lot of challenges that he has had, and had a lot of success internationally.”

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Ghotbi’s footballing CV is, indeed, one of the most impressive in the CPL. The 58-year-old Iranian-American has coached at three FIFA World Cups, as an assistant with the United States (France 1998) and South Korea (Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006). He’s worked in seven countries; he won MLS Cup as an assistant with LA Galaxy, and he won the Iranian league title in 2008 at the helm of Persepolis FC. As a head coach, he was in charge of the Iran team that made the quarter-finals of the 2011 Asian Cup.

Now, though, Ghotbi has chosen Vancouver. The past few years were, undoubtedly, challenging: Ghotbi was coaching in China when the COVID-19 pandemic began, which left him fully isolated from family, most of which was still in southern California. In 2022, it was time to return to North America.

“I’ve become — even more as I get older — more patient and more flexible,” Ghotbi said. “I learn how to adapt and find solutions in wherever I go, and I think this is a no-brainer for me. [Vancouver is] of the greatest cities in the world, a global city with diversity and a club that wants to embrace the city and connect to the city.”

Ghotbi, who was born in Tehran but emigrated to Los Angeles at 13 years old, hadn’t seen much of Vancouver until he arrived this week. Even from a few brief wanders around the city, though, he’s enamoured with it already.

Afshin Ghotbi (Photo: Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)
Afshin Ghotbi (Photo: Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)

“One of the first things I’ve learned is when you come to a new country to work, it’s all about observing, listening, and trying to learn from the local culture and the country,” he said. “I’ve been 24 hours in Vancouver and I’m in love with the city already; the colours, the lights, how the sun bounces off the mountains in the water. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen so far.”

Ghotbi went on to add that, as an immigrant himself, he’s excited by the idea of working in a place as diverse and multicultural as the Lower Mainland.

If you just look at my life story, my life story is being an immigrant at age 13, coming to America,” he pointed out. “Literally everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been an immigrant. When you are an immigrant, you have to work much harder; almost every day you have to prove yourself. Sometimes you feel excluded as an immigrant in any society. The fact that a team, a football club like Vancouver FC can embrace all the cultures and embody the diversity that the city stands for, it’s really beautiful. For me, it’s really touching and I want to be part of that.”

All that said, Ghotbi isn’t here just to enjoy living in Vancouver. He’s here to win football matches, and to help build a competitive CPL club as quickly as possible.

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Speak to Ghotbi for long enough and he’s sure to fascinate with an anecdote or two from his time in soccer. For instance, there’s the time a young Ghotbi was enthralled by Johan Cruyff playing at LA’s Rose Bowl, years before Ghotbi met Cruyff in Amsterdam as he saw the Dutchman’s Barcelona side beat Ajax 4-2.

“I told him I was 13 years old watching you and you’ve inspired me as a football man, to see such a fantastic talent, the flair you played with,” Ghotbi recalled. “He hugged me, and he was so happy.”

Many years after that, of course, Ghotbi coached against Cruyff’s son Jordi in China.

It’s a bit of a cliché, but Ghotbi can accurately be described as a student of the game. Over his multiple decades of coaching, he’s seen the sport played on so many different levels, from grassroots and youth soccer to the absolute pinnacle of football at the World Cup.

Still, upon taking over a CPL club, it was important to him to become acquainted with how the sport is played here in Canada.

Ghotbi explained that he’s seen as many games as he could, and the level of play was higher than perhaps even he expected. He saw Sunday’s CPL Final in Ottawa and likened the atmosphere at TD Place to an MLS playoff game.

Afshin Ghotbi (Photo: Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)
Afshin Ghotbi (Photo: Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)

“The Canadian league is here to stay, but it’s here to entertain and I think it’s here to continue to evolve and develop for the future of the game on a global scale,” Ghotbi said.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of difficult and challenging projects. If you follow my career, partly because of my origin and because of being Iranian-American, I don’t get teams like Bayern Munich or Real Madrid or Man City, I get teams that I have to really build from being either a medium level or being a low level, and I have to build them up. It’s become part of my skillset that I can make players better, make teams better. I can make lemonade out of a lemon and I can try to create an atmosphere that brings the best out of the group. I do believe in the philosophy that we need to kind of create a team that the whole is greater than the sum.”

The work now begins for Ghotbi, who must go about assembling a team that, according to him, must be able to entertain in a city that already has plenty of entertainment options. From his early view of the Canadian talent pool, he sees a wealth of wingers that can cut inside and threaten to score, and central players with duel-winning quality to start counter-attacks.

He sees competitive spirit; players that are hungry to win.

“We have to create a team that can, from the first game, give the fans the feeling that we can win any game, and every time they come to our stadium they’re going to be entertained, they’re going to go home with goosebumps,” Ghotbi said.

“Football for me is a passion, it’s a way of life — since one year old I was in the streets playing with a plastic ball, walking with a ball at my feet. I want the team to represent that kind of passion and that kind of spirit that not only I’ve lived by but also I think Vancouver’s about.”

As soccer begins to truly find its place in Canada, Ghotbi expressed how excited he is to be involved with the sport here at this particular juncture.

He, more than most, is aware of the power a World Cup can have — not just playing in one, as the men’s national team will do later this month, but hosting one, as Canada (and specifically Vancouver) will do in 2026. Ghotbi was working with the Korean side that co-hosted in 2002, and he saw how the game exploded domestically — but also how it put South Korea on the football map globally.

“I’ve participated in three World Cups; every time I’m in one of the World Cups I learn so much about the power of the game,” he said. “This game has the ability to connect people, has an ability to unite people, has an ability to give confidence to a whole nation and there’s such a good feeling that comes with results and participating in the World Cup.

“I think as more people will learn about Canada, they will fall in love with Canada and Canadian people.”