Katayoun Khosrowyar, an American-Iranian head coach of the Iran’s U-19 women’s football team, says Iranian female football players are more determined than ever.
“Nothing can hold Iranian women’s footballers down”, Khosrowyar, who is also known as Coach Kat, tells the Tehran Times in a recent interview.
Katayoun, Katiana in English, was born in Tulsa Oklahoma, an oil and gas city where her family is affiliated with energy industry.
She began playing football or soccer when she was five years old, mainly because soccer was becoming a big sports program for girls. She was athletic at a very young age, like her parents and siblings. Her father preferred her to play a team sport, because he saw that she was a team player and enjoyed being with kids her age.
Katayoun went quite far, as far as the football levels go, and she was going to play for a university, and everyone on her team got full scholarships including herself. However, that same summer when she was going into her senior year, she decided visit Iran to see relatives before her final year and heading off to college, and that is when her story in Iran begins.
Below is Khosrowyar’s interview with the Tehran Times.
Q. Could you tell us how you ended up in Iran?
A. I had heard so much about Iran that I wanted to come and visit it. It wasn’t something that was pre-planned for me to move here. It just kind of happened. When I first came here I spent a lot of time with the family and was playing futsal, because that was the only sports similar to football, and from there word got around that this American girl is here and she is a professional football player, and that same summer, a few weeks before I had to go back to the U.S., Shahrzad Mozaffar came to me in my training session and said that she is starting a national team, and she wants me to be part of it.
Because of her telling me what is happening in the country is why stayed. Back in the U.S., I was on a team and everybody was expecting me to come back, because I had an important position on the team. But at 17 when I had that opportunity to play for Iran, I decided to take it on but this was way before I knew I had to play with hijab, and I would be playing with girls who had never played football before. One of the reasons I decided to do this was because of Mozaffar who said if I stayed we will be making a movement, and you will be part of history, whereas in the U.S., players come and go, you are replaceable where here you are not. You are going to be part of this movement and you are always going to be part of the development of it.
So that was something that I decided at 17 to continue. No one was really happy with my decision at the beginning, because everyone was leaving Iran to have a better life in the U.S. or wherever it is, and I was taking the opposite direction and coming back to Iran, but I didn’t mind that move.
Q. Did Iranian officials help you to stay here?
A. I was already comfortable here and had many people in my family. Iranian officials were helpful, because they knew I chose to stay in Iran rather than go back to the U.S. They have been very lenient with me, and worked with me, and gave me that path so that I can excel as an athlete and as a coach. If it wasn’t for their support, there was no way I could have been here as an American-Iranian, as a player and as a coach. They trust me as the head coach of the national team. They trust me to be a decent role model for the future generations as football players as well as to get more coaches involved at a higher level.
I feel my path has already been set, and now it is just the matter of taking one day at the time getting more women involved in this global game.
Q. Are you still dreaming more for your team?
A. Oh, sure. Not until we make it to the World Cup or Olympics. I don’t think we will be finished any time soon.
Q. How do you resolve issues on your coaching path?
A. Being raise as an athlete, you come across a lot of issues, but how you solve them is what makes the difference between an athlete and non-athlete. Most people will just sit back and be like oh, there was a problem and I can’t do anything about it and just try to move on to something else, whereas people with an athletic mindset, nothing can put them down.
Q. How has the experience of playing internationally for the Iranian female players been for you?
A. This was one of the challenges we thought we were going to face. Because whether we like it or not, people already have a negative connotation about us. We are the only team in the world that has to wear the hijab. Our outfits are different, and we are coming from a country that the media portray in a bad way that people are wary of us wherever we meet them. But we are breaking a lot of mindsets that people thought they had, and we are doing this via football and this is an important step forward especially in an Islamic country like Iran. We are fighting alongside all the other teams who want to make it to the World Cup and to the Asian Games.
Q. Your thoughts on the Uzbekistan Tournament, and the wild game between Iranian players and Uzbekistanis.
A. At this tournament I don’t think anyone thought that the Iranian team was going to be strong. Our first game was against Afghanistan, and we beat them 6-0. Then we played with an entire differently lineup, because we knew Uzbekistan was very strong, so we were hiding all our good players against Afghanistan. When we played against Uzbekistan we put all our strong players in, and everyone was completely confused about how this Iranian national team is playing so well, at this high intensity and this aggressively. We shocked pretty much everybody at that stadium. It was extremely aggressive, because Uzbek players are generally very aggressive, but what we did in my training session leading up to Uzbekistan was that we had a lot of weight lifting and a lot of training in karate and kick boxing, so the girls would get used to it, because football is a highly aggressive game, it is not like ballet where no one comes near you. You are being tackled and they are trying to break something in your body. That is what football is. With those players I told them during half time, that either you will be sent to the hospital or they will be sent to the hospital, so you choose which one. That’s how aggressive this match was. But it was a great match to see because you were witnessing the development of women’s football.
Q. What happened to your team at the end?
A. We lost 2-1 in that game. We scored the first goal, but you are in Uzbekistan, they are the host, so most likely the refs and everybody will be on their side. If you watched the game, we had so many penalties that should not been given to us. We scored two goals and they said it was offside, but it wasn’t. Everything was lined up to be against us, but I was happy with the result and the match, because it shows that the girls were becoming much better football players, they were becoming much more aggressive and stronger and tactically we outclassed the other side. At the end of the match, the Uzbekistan coach, who was actually a mentor of mine, said this was one of the best games he has ever seen and it was unfortunate that the ref was officiating this way. We are going to see Uzbekistan in a few months for the Asian championship and we are going to get our revenge then.
Q. How do you assess women’s football coaching in Iran?
A. The coach education that we have in football has never been strong enough. But now with the presence of Mr. Hossein Abdi, the technical director of the program, he is making a lot of changes and now we are actually seeing the improvement. The female coaches are very hungry for knowledge, and he is actually here to fill that void and to get women’s football going.
Q. How many years do you need to get to the Olympics or Asian Games?
A. If it continues this way, five years. We just need more people like Mr. Abdi to have a vision for women’s football.
Q. Does women’s football have issues with funds?
A. The ministry of sports does not allocate much to women’s football, but if they see the steady improvement that is when the financial support will come for more games, more tournaments, more coach education programs, like sending more coaches abroad to learn and come back with whatever they have learned.
Q. What does it take for girls to get ready for football physically?
A. Football is a highly physical game, so they need to make sure that their fitness and conditioning can be at the international level. I have a three-week program and every week it changes per player with the weights they use in the weight room, with the kilometers they run, whether it is at a certain speed or pace like sprinting. I make sure they start other sports like karate, taekwondo or boxing.
In football, it is all about mentality, too. We give the girls a lot of books about psychology, especially about athletes, because in this age especially under 19, they are undergoing a lot of fluctuations emotionally, and it is very difficult to keep them in a certain flow. We are always having to give the girls different lessons and different books to start reading and we have classes in camp about different situations for each player. We do have a psychologist as part of the team. He helps us a lot with how we have to handle the emotions of these players.
Q. Did you go through these training programs as well yourself?
A. Yes, I did as a player. I worked with many, many male and female coaches, and I handpicked what I liked and didn’t like as a player, learning from my coach. In my coaching education programs, I had the best instructors, and I picked and chose from them, and I do what benefits my team most now.
Football has been a long road, a long journey for me. I am a young coach. I went to Russia within a month of training the girls and played against some of the best teams, Russia, North Korea, Romania. Even though there were four teams, it was the first time Iran got a medal. We used to lose 10-0 or 15-0, but this time we were losing 1-0 or 2-0 or we won. The gap is closing.
Q. Looking back at your life and coaching career, what would you change if you could?
A. If I could have turned time back, I would have played longer. I retired at 24 and I didn’t even reach my prime as a football player, but that’s mainly because I was playing since I was 5-years-old. That’s like 19 years of consecutive playing and having a very strict lifestyle, what you eat is under program and how you think is under a program, who your friends are, how you sleep, how you study. All of this was very strenuous and it is been a lot of hard work and I think at 24 I needed to stop to do something else. They needed coaches and needed to train coaches for Iranian teams, because in Iran you have 80 plus million people who love football.
I am a young coach but I have been reading, sleeping, eating football since I was very young. So even though I am young I have enough experience as a former player and as a coach. I have a great team of coaching experts with me. We all work together.
Q. Where are you going to be in 10 years from now?
A. Sitting at a stadium at the World Cup, coaching my team.
Q. What about 20 years from now.
A. I will be most likely managing many academies in Iran getting more girls involved in football and keeping that momentum going.
Q. How do you juggle so many balls in life, work, family, house chores …
A. My family helps me a lot. They are supportive of what I am doing. They help me with everything. And my family background is in such that they are all athletes, so they understand what I am doing. But I live on the field pretty much so all my chores and everything are done on the field and when I come home it is usually like a party for me.
Q. What is the difference between coaching young Iranian girls as opposed to American or European girls?
A. In Iran you have to play so many different roles. I have to speak to the girls and their teachers in school and convince them to come to training, or I have to convince them that they will be studying in the camp. Sometimes the girls don’t speak to their parents and their parents call me and say why she isn’t speaking to me, or vice versa. So, you are playing more roles than just a head coach. I think the difference between coaching here and the U.S. or anywhere else in the world is that you are just the head coach there, the girls come to you, you only work with them for that period of time, and then they are gone, whereas here they want you to work with them through everything.
Q. Do you have any message for Iranian women, young girls to hold on to?
A. Never, ever, ever give up. That is something that is rotating in my head right now. I know it is a cliché thing to say, but you should never give up on something that you have a belief in, or you have an idea about, or if you really believe in it, then you have to continue forward to the end, and the positive energy that you put in it, you will get the results.
Interview by Marjan Golpira
Editing by Masoud Hossein