July 9, 2010

By Amy Farnum

As the 2010 FIFA World Cup enters its final weekend of competition, University of Hartford men’s soccer coach Dan Gaspar will be watching the planet’s premier international soccer tournament crown a champion on television from his home state of Connecticut like many other fans throughout the world.  

But, as Spain and The Netherlands face off in the final game on Sunday, Gaspar will also likely be reminiscing about his experience on the sidelines as one of the assistant coaches for the Portuguese National Team over the last few weeks.

Gaspar, the son of Portuguese immigrants grew up in Connecticut, learning the sport of soccer from his father Manuel, who was a former professional goalkeeper in Portugal.

“He was really the one who impacted my life,” said Gaspar.  “It was through his passion and energy that he shared with me his goalkeeping knowledge.  He passed that torch on to me.”

After attending the University of Hartford where he played goalkeeper from 1974-77, Gaspar founded the Star Goalkeeper Academy and began a long coaching career in the sport he loved.  In 1992, the United States hosted the U.S. Open Cup, with Portugal, Ireland and Italy as participants in the tournament.  As a member of the Portuguese Club of Hartford, Gaspar served as a liaison for the Portuguese National Team as they were to play Italy in Connecticut.

“That was my first exposure to the Portuguese National Team although I always had this dream of being on their coaching staff,” said Gaspar.  “When they arrived, I had the opportunity to meet (Portuguese National Team head coach) Carlos Queiroz.  He was impressed with my organizational ability and that led to a discussion of me saying to him that I would pay my own way, but I would love the opportunity to work with his best players.”  

The two discussed goalkeeping – and Gaspar’s knowledge of the position – and how the American-born coach could possibly help the National Team of his parents’ homeland.

“We both felt that Portugal had produced some of the best players in the world, but wondered why we hadn’t been able to produce a world-class goalkeeper,” said Gaspar. “He spoke to their Federation and they invited me in and I started with the U-17 National Team, and then the Senior National Team and I began a long-term relationship with Carlos.”

In 1993, Gaspar was a part of Portugal's World Cup qualification process, but the squad lost to Italy, falling short of a bid to qualify for the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States.

“(The 1994 World Cup) would have been an awesome experience, but that didn’t occur,” said Gaspar.  “It’s been 17 or 18 years of sacrifice and commitment to revisit that dream again.  It was the missing piece of my professional curriculum.”

Gaspar went on to serve in many other coaching positions over the years – mentoring goalkeepers for the world-renowned Portuguese club team FC Porto, leading the Connecticut Wolves of the USL Pro League for three seasons, and serving as an assistant for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of Major League Soccer before being named Hartford’s head coach in 2005.

However, he never got to coach – or even attend – a World Cup game until this summer in South Africa, when Queiroz invited Gaspar to join his staff once again.

And, one of Gaspar’s biggest thrills associated with the accomplishment is that his parents – in their early 80s – saw their son realize a life-long goal.

“My parents are very proud Portuguese immigrants,” said Gaspar.  “English was not allowed at our dinner table.  I didn’t enjoy that. I wanted to be perceived as an American and not as a foreigner, but without their pride for their culture, I wouldn’t have had the experiences I’ve had in the international arena.”

Portugal allowed just one goal in four games, falling 1-0 to Spain in the knockout round on June 29.  Gaspar is anxious to share the experience of the event with his University of Hartford squad, but believes the overall accomplishment is one that will resonate with his collegiate players.

“I think I serve as an example of striving for your dream, and that is a powerful message to share with student-athletes, whether it is on or off the field,” said Gaspar.  “You need to have the ultimate belief that you can achieve your goal.  Who would ever imagine an American-born coach would be involved with the third-ranked team in the world?”

After returning from South Africa this week, Gaspar now looks ahead to Hartford’s 2010 season.  The Hawks will open at Boston College on Sept. 1.