GameChangers: Golnoosh Khosravi, Iran’s teenage trailblazer
Isfahan: There were any number of reasons for Golnoosh Khosravi to give up on her football dream. She refused to take no for an answer.
In the latest edition of GameChangers – which tells great stories from women’s football in Asia – we meet the 19-year-old who overcame tremendous obstacles to secure a history-making transfer and emerge as a potentially transformative figure for Iranian football.
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“The best advice that I can give is that there is no excuse,” said Khosravi, from her home in Isfahan.
“Even if you don’t have food, or if you don’t have shoes, if you don’t have support from your family or from your coach. No, there is no excuse, because I have experienced a lot.
“If you want to gain something, you have to work hard.”
After two momentous years, Khosravi has the opportunity to reflect on a notable rise.
Barely out of what she describes as an ‘extremely hard’ childhood, Khosravi signed her first overseas contract last August, overcoming personal tragedy and the weight of history in the process.
The winger’s contract with the Izmir-based, five-time Turkish champions Konak Belediyespor made her, according to some sources, the first Iranian woman to play club football in Europe. She was certainly the youngest, and she will be far from the last.
Since Khosravi’s move, Saba Salimi has joined FC Marxal in Azerbaijan, while Yasaman Farmani – the wife of men’s national team star Ali Gholizadeh – signed for Belgium’s Charleroi over the past weekend, underlining the growing trend of female talent from one of Asia’s great footballing epicentres testing themselves abroad.
None of it seemed possible when Khosravi’s journey began a decade ago. Growing up in the late 2000s, a professional football career seemed a world away for the “very skinny” and football-obsessed Khosravi, who dreamt of playing, but lacked a clear pathway.
Opportunities and money were equally hard to come by, but nothing hit harder than the death of Khosravi’s father when she was just eight years old.
“When I lost my father, that was really, really hard for me and also for my mother,” she told the-AFC.com.
“We were living in a very small village with almost nothing. I didn’t have shoes for running outside. I didn’t have lunch. I was eating very small snacks, that’s why I was really skinny.
“But I would run a lot, all the time, to achieve my goal. My mum was sacrificing a lot. She was doing everything. Doing low level jobs, just to make things possible.”
Few knew how significantly those sacrifices would pay off. Without a local women’s club to join, Khosravi began playing futsal at the age of nine, before switching back to football after catching the attention of officials higher up and training with the U-14 women’s national team as a 10-year-old, not that any of it came easily.
Khosravi knew how to run but had to learn almost everything else before she was ready to face real opposition, even at youth level.
“When I started playing football, I didn’t even have the shoes. I had no real idea how to play football,” she laughed. “But I loved it.
“I was using my speed, because I was really fast. They put me as a centre-forward because of my speed, but I always loved to cross the ball. I was a little bit disappointed that I didn’t have the opportunity to send in crosses. I had no idea.”
One of Khosravi’s crucial mentors was national youth team coach and former Iranian women’s international Katayoun Khosrowyar.
“We literally incubated her for a few months to just train her soccer skills so she would perform as well as the other kids,” Khosrowyar recalled of her first contact with the girl from Isfahan.
“She was really skinny, but so fast. Golnoosh always loved soccer, starting when she first set her eyes on a ball, and her mum always supported her.
“I gave her debut in the U-14s, where she scored her first goal, and since then she has been a starting player. Now she’s something special for Islamic Republic of Iran and we can’t wait to see what she does next.”
Khosravi was just 12 when she made that scoring debut, in a 6-0 win over Tajikistan at the AFC U-14 Girls’ Regional Championship in Sri Lanka, but while her first taste of international competition was a success, it was also a crash course in performing outside of one’s comfort zone.
“We had come from Iran, where – and Isfahan especially – it was really dry,” Khosravi remembered
“In Sri Lanka it was so hot, and it was really bothering me and the whole team, but especially me, because I was really skinny and younger than everyone else. It was hard for me even to breathe the air. I played and scored but after the match I felt exhausted.
“Also, most of the team wasn’t used to food from Sri Lanka, so we were always eating French fries, and nothing else. One of the coaches told me, 'keep it up, eat more French fries', because I was skinnier than everyone else.”
As Khosravi’s match minutes grew, so too did her confidence. She returned and scored six goals in five matches at the Regional U-14 Championship the following year, before graduating to the U-16, then U-19 national teams, both ahead of schedule.
As an energetic winger who contributed in both attack and defence, she was now a key member of an Iranian team which was becoming increasingly competitive at youth level, putting themselves within sight of a rare group stage appearance at the AFC U-19 Women’s Championship.
They missed out of qualifying for the Continental Finals by the barest possible margin – they were edged out on disciplinary points after finishing dead level with group hosts Vietnam – but Konak Belediyespor had seen enough, and Khosravi was soon swapping Isfahan for Izmir.
It is difficult to overstate the enormity of the challenge Khosravi faced in leaving her life behind, as an 18-year-old from a country not known for producing women’s professionals, in order to play abroad.
She had travelled far and wide to play matches since childhood, but never lived away from home, and she would be doing so while hoping to prove the worth of Iranian women’s football as a whole.
In addition, Konak Belediyespor were not just any club. As the most successful Turkish outfit over the past decade they were desperate to return to the UEFA Women’s Champions League, and, as Khosravi would soon discover, expectations, and opinions, were anything but discreet.
“I went to Izmir, and it was really hard for me at the beginning,” she recalled.
“It was my first experience of living outside the country and playing outside of the Iranian league, and there were also many people calling the head coach of the club crazy to even hire an Iranian girl.
“They had five spots for foreign players and they already had one from Macedonia, one from Romania and two from Nigeria. They could have had someone else from another country, but they hired this Iranian girl. Many people didn’t even know that Iran has a women’s team or women’s players.
“There was a lot of pressure and I felt like everyone was looking at me and how I was going to play.”
But Khosravi was buoyed by a flood of encouragement from her home country.
Everyone from actors to Iranian football heroes sent her messages of support, and while it’s clear that her introduction to the European scene represented a milestone, she is hungry to make it the first of many achievements.
“I got so much support, from big names in Iran as well as regular people,” said Khosravi, who was getting regular game time when the league was ended early six games early due to COVID-19, with Konak Belediyespor sitting third.
“This is a motivation for me, but also, I feel pressure too. The thing is, I don’t want to stay at one level. I may be the first player to play out of Iran, but I don’t want to stay at this level. I want to go to the better leagues, better clubs and be more successful.
“I want to be better and better, and I want to surprise all the people that were supporting me and are supporting me. I’m looking to find a new club, which we are doing right now.”
According to Khsoravi’s agent, a return to Turkey is possible, but there are also offers on the table to move to other European clubs. Doing so could potentially bring her closer to her long-term goal of appearing for a club in one of the continent’s top leagues, and she sees no reason why other Iranian players can’t do the same.
“In terms of personal ability and skills, I can say that we Iranian players are on the level of the players I saw in Turkey, but as teams they are better than us,” she said.
“Personally, if you want to go one by one, we have so many players in Iran who easily have the potential to play in Europe.
“I’m wishing that one day the Iranian women’s national team will play in the World Cup and, when we qualify, the whole world will see the potential that our players have.”
Former coach Khosrowyar not only agrees that Iran’s best female footballers are good enough to leave a mark in foreign leagues, but believes the 2019 U-19 national team cohort could leave a lasting impact for the women’s game in the country.
“I believe that U-19 team has what it takes to be the future changemakers,” she said. “They went through a tough and crucial one-year period from 2018 to 2019, they know what it takes to compete with top teams, and I’ve seen them continuing to take this seriously. In my opinion all of my players who were on that U-19 team should play overseas.”
If such a transformation is to occur, Khosravi may one day be regarded as the one who started it all, but in the interim, she remains wholly committed to achieving her individual goals – and then setting new ones.
“If you look at Messi and Ronaldo, they have so many awards, but they stay hungry and are still looking for more,” she declared.
“I want to be like them and not set limits for what I can achieve. I want to keep getting better and better.
From no excuse to no limits. Golnoosh Khosravi has no plans to slow down.
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