One Brave Kat

Iranian football has made many headlines in the past year. The early qualification to the World Cup, the US sanctions that influenced preparations for the tournament, Team Melli’s great performances against Spain & Portugal, and of course - a record number of Iranian players who have flooded the European market, mainly, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Brighton’s recent signing, have set the world’s eyes on the emerging football nation from Asia. Yet, there’s another story evolving in Iranian football lately, and it might be even much more important than all of those above. 

“In 2011, we were playing at the second round of the Olympic qualifications, after surprisingly going through the first round of the competition. Just before we were about to play, a FIFA representative came and said that we are disqualified from the qualifications only due to the hijabs that we were wearing. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I felt so bad. That day, I promised myself that I will do everything that I can to prevent Iranian girls from going through this same experience. So, here we are”.

The speaker is Katayoun Khosrowyar, 30, the Iranian Under 19 Women National Team coach. After being the women's national team captain as a player, Khosrowyar turned to a coaching career, and since then she is breaking records and barriers in the complex Iranian reality. 

Khosrowyar is the first Iranian woman to receive the FIFA/AFC ‘A’ license for football coaching. She has coached the Under 14 and Under 16 Women’s National teams, and leading both to the top 8 of Asia. Now, with her girls in the U19 team, she aims to qualify for the Asian Games and make Iran women football an Asian football powerhouse. 

After the hijab incident, she kicked off an effective campaign under the name of “Let Us Play”, that encouraged FIFA to acknowledge women who have to wear coverings while playing. In 2014, the campaign reached its goal, when FIFA allowed head coverings for religious reasons for Iranians, and every Muslim female players in the organisation’s member countries. 

This inspiring story of an aspiring young coach is impressive by all counts, but hearing Khosrowyar’s personal background is simply mind blowing. Kat (nickname), was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, and grew up as an average & normal Midwestern girl. Well, almost average, and barely normal. During a brief moment as a teenager, while visiting her family in Iran, she decided to shift her life 180 degrees, join the Iranian national football team, and to stay and to change world orders in the country through the game she loves the most. 

After finishing a training camp with her girls, Kat sat with BabaGol for a deep conversation and shared her thoughts about Iran, USA, women empowerment and of course - football.

In the front line of the Iranian women football revolution. Khosrowyar, on the right in blue (Photo: Bianca Lyon

In the front line of the Iranian women football revolution. Khosrowyar, on the right in blue (Photo: Bianca Lyon

You’ve been born in the United States, where you started to play football.
Who introduced you to the game at first?

When I was 5 years old my dad wanted me to get involved in sports. I was playing with my sisters, playing with my dad, with everyone I could. It was my natural way for development. Basically, football started for me before I even could have made a decision for myself, thanks to my father.

And then, just like that, you moved to Iran. Wait, what? Explain to us what happened.
I came to Iran for a two week vacation just to visit my family and meet them before I go to the university in the States, and to understand a bit about my culture and roots. In the US I was already on my state team, playing in a high level. When I came here there was no women’s gym, and no decent sportive option established for women. A few of my dad’s friends said that the only thing that they have close to football is Futsal. So I started playing Futsal. After a couple of sessions, I began to see more & more people who came to watch me train. “Who is this American girl here?”, they were asking. They were kind of amazed by a young girl who has a six-pack, broad shoulders - with a footballer's body. A few days before I left, I met Shahrzad Mozafar - the Iranian women futsal national team coach - and she told me: “I am starting the first women's football national team after the revolution, and I want you to be a part of it”. So, without asking permission from my family I shook hands and said: “Yes”.

That’s crazy! How does a young girl take this kind of decision? What was the family’s reaction?
I was 16, turning 17. My whole family supported it because they understood that this is something big. They knew that I am doing something historic, something that would make a change, a positive one. My family knows that I’m a crazy child, but they also know that with my craziness, something good will always come out of it. I always did the hardest things. I chose to study chemical engineering. I played field hockey, tracking field & football at the same time while also learning piano. I did everything that I loved, and on the best level. So they trusted my intuition. When I was called up for the national team, they were laughing: “Kat, we always knew that you can make it to the national team, but we didn’t think it would be Iran’s!”

Was it an easy decision?
Quite easy, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t know I should play with a hijab. In the first practice when I went out to the field, I was wearing shorts, so everybody was telling me: “No no! You should go back and change!” But it was ok, I said to myself - “If these women can play with a hijab, then so do I”. After playing in the western world, it was different for me, but I wanted to become one of them. I wanted to understand what it is to be like them, instead of being that spoiled American girl that everything is being served for her on a silver plate. I wanted to understand a different culture with different dynamics.

Most people don’t know that women are allowed to play football in Iran. How is it to be a football coach in Iran and how big is football among women in the country?
When football started for women in Iran it took over the rest of the other sports. Nowadays, everyone wants to get involved in football here. Every day I get around 20 messages or calls from fathers who want their daughters in the national team. Football is the national sport here, for women and men alike. There’s no doubt about it. Football is what can get this nation crazy, in a good way, and in a bad way too (laughing).

So you are travelling all over the country to watch Iranian girls playing football.
Yes. I have divided Iran into 9 different provinces and I just travel all the time to every city, every town, to try and see the girls play. Usually I find them in the futsal courts, in the gym or just playing in the parks. We don’t have a proper scouting infrastructure for women in Iran yet, so I try to scout them this way, until the system will be set up.

"I promised myself that I will do everything that I can to prevent Iranian girls from going through this same experience. So, here we are” Khosrowyar with her players (Photo: Bianca Lyon)

"I promised myself that I will do everything that I can to prevent Iranian girls from going through this same experience. So, here we are” Khosrowyar with her players (Photo: Bianca Lyon)

What are the differences between football in the US and football in Iran?
In the US they had many more coaches, programs, teams, leagues, etc. Everything was set up and organised with three weekly training sessions and a game on the weekend. It was a given professional attitude & system. It was much easier. Here (Iran), you really have to fight for it. You don’t have the system, the set-up, the structure. One week it can happen, the next one you don’t know. Football here, also in the men's level, has progress to make in terms of conditions and facilities.

Describe the feeling of representing Iran nowadays, as a player, as a coach and well - as an American too.
Look, I am a really proud American, and on the same time a really proud Iranian. I don’t let it stop me from anything, even that politically these countries are not ‘the best friends’. I was growing up as a strong independent woman. I had the best coaches, the best upbringing and supportive environment as a student-athlete in the US. What I try to do here is to mimic it in a society that is very different culturally, but with a lot of potential. What I learned and how I was trained in the US, I try to develop here with my own team in manners of the structure.
I feel like people trust me here more because I am American. No one ever bothered me here for being American, and vice versa, no one in the US picked on me for it. I think that for them it's even more intriguing to see a girl that was born in the Midwest, and now she is living in Iran for the past 13 years. I am just trying to break this negative vibe, because we are all humans, and from a human to human I want everyone to be trained in the best way, to make the game even more beautiful. 

That’s a serious challenge. 
In the beginning, the girls didn’t have proper football shoes, they didn’t play on grass. Now we are tackling, pushing and running, coming with tactics. I am trying to bring the global game to Iranian women, so we can compete globally. It is all about giving back to the community and inspiring these girls to have exactly the same conditions the girls in the US have. From the basics up. I want the girls to understand - Yes, you are in Iran, in the Middle East, you are dressed differently, you look like ninjas, but it’s not harming your progress, growth or success. You have two legs, your body, your eyes, you just have to play and learn how to play.

What is the daily routine of the Iranian U-19 national women's team coach?
We are now preparing for the U-19 Asian Championships qualifiers in Myanmar (October 24th-28th), where we will play against Myanmar Laos and Palestine. The locals have a foreign coach from the Netherlands, Laos are a really strong and fast team as they play against boys occasionally and Palestine are talented. It’s going to be a tough one for us. We have 3 or 4 days of camp every 10 days, with two or one practices per day. At the moment we are playing against the senior team to prepare the girls, and we are focusing on fitness and conditioning - but based on football. High intense games, 5x5, 10x10. Trying to teach them football in the process of building their fitness too. We watch together two matches every camp, then they will analyse it for me, and present to me what they think they should do in the forthcoming games, etc. I want them to become creative in any aspect of the game. Something that is really inherited in many things in Middle Eastern culture is that ‘Its a one man’s show’. I am trying to encourage and to build the teamwork essence of the players.

"Now we are tackling, pushing and running, coming with tactics", Kat's girls in action (Photo: Bianca Lyon)

"Now we are tackling, pushing and running, coming with tactics", Kat's girls in action (Photo: Bianca Lyon)

Despite the hardships, you think Iranian women football, and football in general, has made a progress in recent years?
After women football started here in 2005, we went to the Asian games and got the 2nd place, while no one thought that we can do it. It showed the federation that the girls are actually talented, and they understood that they need to invest in them. The problem was that it was very hard to attract good coaches to come and work here, and I think this is where we stagnate. In futsal, a man and woman can work side by side, so they are succeeding. In football it’s different. We don’t have a proper league, we don’t have a junior league, we don’t have a league for the grassroots, so how are these girls supposed to understand the game quick enough? As long as there won’t be an organised league structure, I don’t think there will be a serious progress. 

Your work is recently getting a lot of recognition. What are the reactions in Iran? And the US?
In Iran, in the beginning, it was kind of a secret, because I was very young compared to other veteran coaches. Later on, when everyone discovered it, the reactions were great and very supportive. In the US, most of the contacts were interested in understanding how a girl like me does what I do, coaching in a country like Iran. It was not about my professional experience, but more about the cultural impact of my actions. In Europe, the Middle East and Asia people were much more supportive and interested in my work.

In the past years, we hear more and more stories in relation to the fact women are not allowed in football stadiums in Iran. Do you think there is a chance for a change in this matter too? 
The only stadium which is problematic is the Azadi stadium in Tehran. In Esfahan, I go to the stadium with the men and watch the games with no problem at all. Though it’s a very complicated situation in Tehran, I believe we are really close. There are true plans for opening women stands in the games. Slowly but carefully, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Kat, after all of this, what is the real goal?
For the U19 team, the goal is to get into the Asian Games. For myself, to become the senior national team coach. But before that, I need to get some experience in European leagues - I am way too young for this role and I want to gain enough experience before that. Besides, I still haven’t finished my work here. I want to see this system working independently. A self-efficient system of women football in Iran, and then I can continue to other places.

As in every BabaGol interview, Katayoun answered the ‘Personal Football Questions’ questionnaire.

What is your favourite formation of a football team?
4-2-3-1.

Who is the best player you have coached?
Zahara Khodabakhshi - a talented central defender that I moved to be a forward. Amazing attitude, a true professional that wants to be somebody in the football world. 

What would you do if not for football?
I will focus on my oil & gas procurement company - The Procure - and make money! (laughing)

What is football for you?
Football is my way of life. It gave me my principles in life. 

Who is your favourite team? Real Madrid. 

What is your greatest football moment of all times? In 2011, when we were disqualified for the hijabs, so I've become a warrior for our right to play football as we wish.

What is your dream when it comes to football?
The dream is to make our women's team into an Asian powerhouse. Exactly like the men's team. 

Describe Katayoun Khosrowyar.
I think I am a very innovative with my style. Very disciplined, with a good sense of humour and I have always have a smile on my face. It helps my team, too!

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