This is an American soccer story with a timely World Cup twist, but first, do you understand what tough is?
Is it, say, crunching painfully earthward as a sliding opponent you barely saw takes out your legs as he pokes away the ball? Is it sprinting hillsides for fitness?
Those are, indeed, hard parts of the game Mahmood Ebrahimzadeh loves, lives and teaches. But much deeper, the 45-year-old Eldersburg businessman and youth soccer coach knows a different kind of tough. He talks about it only hesitantly.
Tough is this:
Your country, Iran, is at war with itself philosophically, and a new theocracy bent on doing away with worldly distractions abruptly wipes out soccer, meaning your job and the global travel and prestige that went with it is also gone. You were a pro player, talented enough to start at striker for your country in the 1978 World Cup.
It's the early 1980s, and your country also is at war with a neighbor, Iraq, a heinous affair in which thousands die.
After agonizing months, sometimes within earshot of the guns, you decide you can no longer live in your homeland. But foreign travel is illegal. You opt to leave anyway, saying goodbye to your parents and other relatives.
You're 26. Your wife is 20. Your son is 9 months old. All the three of you have is one another, warm clothing, a soccer player's international reputation, maybe enough money, some personal items and help from friendly mountain people, the Kurds.
It's winter, bitterly cold. For four nights, daytime travel being too dangerous, you will yourselves through rugged, snow-covered mountains -- a three-hour trip by bus in good times. Your wife and son travel on horseback. You walk.
Your nation's soldiers are on one side, the enemy on the other. Flares -- and sometimes artillery shells -- explode unpredictably the whole way.
Above all else, you know that if you are captured, you probably won't make it -- anywhere.
"I could not do it again," Ebrahimzadeh said.
That is part of how Mahmood, which is what he tells everyone to call him, came to be soccer entrepreneur, coach and teacher of American teen-agers in the ways of a game and the world.
Asking him about Iran's revived national team upsetting the U.S. team, 2-1, in this World Cup on June 21 is a must. Now a naturalized citizen, he replied diplomatically: "The best result would have been a tie. Maybe it will help the situation between the countries."
Quickly, he switches to talking about the long-term training, rather, incompleteness of it, that keeps Americans capable of botching such games. The key, he said, is developing talented players with global experience much younger, as early teen-agers.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced an expensive program that concurs, even though its brass probably never heard of him. But in 1989, Ebrahimzadeh began a one-man effort addressing just that point, building on counsel from a coach he had as a kid in Iran:
"When you are older and no longer can play, wherever you are, give back. Teach the game to the young people."
Eldersburg, an old Carroll County crossroads turned booming suburb, seems an unlikely base for his mission. After crossing to freedom in Turkey and subsequently France that winter, Ebrahimzadeh played pro ball in Germany for four years. He first came to America not to stay, but to visit friends in Scranton, Pa. Subsequently, he contracted to play pro indoor soccer in Chicago.
Before that could happen, a broken leg in a pickup game with friends in College Park ended his playing career, starting his youth work. In 1991, Eldersburg became home, he recalled, because he and his wife, Jaleh -- now studying at Howard University's medical school -- decided during an exploratory drive that "it was so green."
Ebrahimzadeh operates a retail soccer business, the Caspian Soccer Pro Shop, as well as soccer camps. He tutors privately.
For the last eight summers, he has taken youth teams -- three left earlier this week for Paris and then the Costa Blanca Cup in Benidorm, Spain -- to Europe for international tournaments.
He selects the players, driving 60,000 to 70,000 miles a year in the process. He trains them, hard, for several months. They, not their parents, must raise most of the money for their trip; 11 days in France and Spain this year cost about $2,800.
North Carroll High's Jamey Ayers, 16, for example, washes dishes in a restaurant. But he's making his third trip because "it's an awesome experience. You learn so much over there, about the game and other things, too. You've got to put in a lot of time and commitment, but if you pay for it yourself, you get more out of it."
His players will at least practice near the Eiffel Tower, probably the same day they tour the Louvre, he said. In Spain, he's told them they'll have to run up a mountain together; second-year players know he's not kidding.
"It's the discipline and for fun, not conditioning," he said. "It's the experience, something they will not ever forget. They learn -- it's part of the whole experience of the game."
Ebrahimzadeh's players never saw him compete, of course.
But in his shop, they see his soccer shoes, black with yellow trim, from the 1978 World Cup dangling from the ceiling. In the back, scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine photos and clippings document his achievements. His family mailed them after he left Iran.
That's Ebrahimzadeh in Argentina in 1978. Here, he's tumbling over a defender while scoring for Wolfsburg Vfl, the Volkswagen-backed German team known here these days as the team of American midfielder Claudio Reyna.
There he is, scoring a 90th-minute, 20-yard volley to tie China, 2-2, before 100,000 in Singapore, qualifying Iran for the 1980 Olympics. "It was the most excellent goal for me, ever," he said.
Only one local clip is in the collection, but players -- and adults -- increasingly seek out Mahmood. He recently was named a district coach for the Maryland State Youth Soccer Association.
Players from all over come to run, shoot, dribble, head, pass and run more -- the coach often demonstrating precisely how he wants skills executed -- on a verdant middle-school field on Westminster's south side.
"We're the Virginia contingent," one parent said at practice. Sami and Cheryl Koosi had carpooling duty for sons from Fredericksburg, Manassas, Lake Ridge, Vienna and Woodbridge -- a 95-minute drive, each way.
Daneace Jeffrey, mother of Howard High forward Shawn Jeffrey, 17, drove from Elkridge just to surprise the coach with two red, white and blue umbrella hats like one that was stolen in Spain last summer. He kissed her.
Why do they find Eldersburg? What's going on here?
"I don't baby-sit," is one explanation Ebrahimzadeh gives. "American kids, they are good athletes. They like the discipline you need for this game."
"He's such a good mentor, on and off the field," said Barbara Slater of Sykesville, whose son, Andy, 14, has been with Caspian 1 1/2 years. "He's so demanding. But they all know he'll tell them if they're doing good or bad. They know he knows what he's talking about. He's been in a World Cup. They really respect that."
Pub Date: 7/10/98