Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we'll talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.
I've been sitting in a coffee shop in Covent Garden, London with Danny Karbassiyoon for more than an hour when he shares a poignant sentiment. In this plush, glitzy part of London's up-market West End, you never really know just how many professional artists, actors and sports personalities you're queuing up next to for coffee, or jostling with for space on a crowded tube train.
Despite Karbassiyoon's brief-but-bright career playing for Arsenal, he seems almost embarrassed to include himself with the local glitterati.
Indeed, his stories about patrolling the left full-back position for Arsene Wenger's side in 2004 are delivered with an unpretentious modesty; for the most part, they take a back seat to the fond memories he still holds of friendships made in north London.Born in Roanoke, Virginia to an Italian mother and Iranian father, Karbassiyoon is now employed as the club's North America scout, and has helped sign players such as Joel Campbell and Gedion Zelalem. During his youth, he was that rarest of phenomena; a professional soccer player who excelled academically, so much so that when Arsenal came calling in 2002, the club which has won 13 English league titles had to fend off competition from Yale, Princeton and a host of other prestigious schools.
Karbassiyoon doesn't see himself as a star name, perhaps because he once lined up alongside Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas, and has seen other friends and former colleagues go on to collect the game's biggest prizes at the club and international level. Still, the journey from Roanoke to north London has clearly helped mould Karbassiyoon into a level-headed and thoughtful former pro.
VICE Sports: So, how did you go from kicking a ball against a wall in Roanoke, Virginia to turning out at Highbury for the Arsenal first team?
Karbassiyoon: I'd already been invited to regional trials twice by the time I was 16. At that age I moved to Germany for four months and played for a small club just outside of Hamburg. There was a guy I'd known at my local club, Roanoke Stars, who had loads of great contacts all around the world so he was able to set that up for me. Then when I came back from that I was much stronger physically, because I'd been playing with kids who were 17 and 18 and in a place where the standard was much higher, so I returned in much better condition. Then the usual route in the States is that you play for your college team then hopefully get picked up by MLS, but that's not how it happened for me.
At what point did you become involved with Arsenal?
I was invited to a soccer camp called the Elite Soccer Program (ESP) in Wilmington, where they invited 150 high school kids from around the States. It worked on a recommendation basis where they would employ a number of people around the country to put people forward to come down for the week. I was actually on the waitlist, then one afternoon I was out playing with a ball in the yard and I got a call asking if I could come down the next day.
There I was assigned to [former Arsenal players] Paul Mariner and Bob McNab as coaches. Towards the end of the week, Paul came to me and started asking how if I could ever see myself living in England and whether I thought I could ever make it as a professional. Then they told me that [Arsenal chief scout] Steve Rowley had been watching me, was really impressed with how the week went, would I like to come over to England for a trial. So that winter I went to go and watch Arsenal play Valencia in the Champions League, in December 2002. Sitting there in the paddock, at Highbury watching the Champions League, that's where I made my mind up, then and there. I went back and told the universities that had offered me scholarships that I was going to be taking Arsenal up on their offer.
On that trip Steve [Rowley] took me along to the training ground and said 'I want you to meet the boss.' Then whilst we were waiting Thierry Henry walked in and Robert Pires walked in and it was just like… wow, this… cool? I met Arsene Wenger that day for the first time too. Steve introduced us and said 'this is the American boy I was telling you about.' He asked me what I thought my strengths were as a player, whether this was my first time in England, that kind of thing. It was nothing to him, but for him to take that time out of his day to come and meet me was amazing for me.
You made your debut in the first team as a 17-year-old on the same night as Robin Van Persie, and scored. What do you remember of that game?
I came on as a substitute for a League Cup game away at Manchester City. I went on in the left-back position which is where I'd been playing in the reserves, even though I'd first come over to England as a striker. But at that time there was Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Kanu higher up the pecking order; I wasn't even in the pecking order really. I remember Quincy [Owusu-Abeyie] picked up the ball on the right and I just thought 'I'm going man', the game was so open. So I broke forward down the left and eventually received the ball from Cesc [Fabregas]. It's hard not to make that run when you see a player like Cesc pick up the ball in that position really.
When I first turned up at Arsenal there's no way I would have done what I did to create space for myself like that and run in behind. I learned so much about your initial movement off the ball when I went to Arsenal. We would be taken to look at the first team and be told 'watch Dennis, watch how he checks-away and then checks-to receive the ball in behind.' Then it just came naturally to me once I'd be taught in that way. Once Cesc played the ball it was easy for me.
It was funny because when you're in the paddock at Highbury you always hear the substitutes being called when the manager wants them to go on. Then suddenly in Manchester I was hearing Pat [Rice, Arsenal assistant manager] call my name, and I was just like 'well this is it – this is what happens next'.
Your spell in the first team lasted only three games, but those games were at the Etihad Stadium, Highbury and Old Trafford. That's quite remarkable.
Yeah nothing can really prepare you for the jump from the reserves to playing in front of 75,000 at Old Trafford, with the lights bearing down on you and your every touch being meticulously picked apart by thousands of people. I was nervous for maybe a minute but then I just remembered that it's only 22 players kicking a ball. It's what I'd wanted to do my whole life so I just had to get one with it really. There's really no point in being nervous.
You played in a team with players who went on to win Premier League titles and World Cups. What are you memories of playing with guys like Van Persie and Fabregas?
Cesc was a really good person for me to practice my high school Spanish on actually. He was only 16 at the time and didn't really speak English, and I'd never really had a chance to use the Spanish I'd learned, so that's how we became friends. I'd also stayed with his landlady Nora when I'd come over on my trial; it's kind of weird to think that that's where the next Arsenal star was being bred. I was also one of the only players in the reserves who had a car so I'd usually give rides to Cesc and Gael Clichy. Clichy moved out of figs in the end because he couldn't put a satellite for French TV on the place.
The first team were incredibly focused in training – this was during a time when they were literally breaking a new record with every game – but afterwards they would behave just like an under 14 team would after practice, sticking free-kicks into the top corner and forcing the goalkeepers to go after them. It was just so nice to see these guys who had won World Cups and Premier League titles just acting like us, like normal guys.
In your role as Arsenal's North America scout, how do you go about identifying the next generation?
You can see by the kind of player that the club has blooded over the years what it is we're after. All the scouts understand what the boss wants, because we're not just looking for players who we think might do well in the youth team for a few years. That's not the mentality at all at Arsenal. We're always scouting for the first team. And that's the scout's job, to be able to identify a player who has the whole package, who can go on and be a star in the first team.
I'm definitely at an advantage for having played under the boss in the Arsenal for two years. I've gotten to see players who were exceptionally good but didn't make it, and players who maybe weren't quite as talented as some others but who have been able to carve careers out for themselves because of their mentality. And that really helps me; I can see a kid and think that he's of the same mentality as a guy I used to know so maybe it's not going to work out for him. Or that this kid has all the tools technically, needs a bit of work physically, so we'll take a chance on him.
If you look at Arsenal's first team you don't have to look very far to understand that type of player that they're after. They have to be exceptional technically, have to be able to retain the ball under pressure, make decisions under pressure. Players have to have an incredible amount of intelligence as well, thinking about where they are on the pitch when the team has the ball and when the team is without the ball, the runs they make, starting positions defensively.
Is scouting for young, un-tapped talent still something the club takes seriously in the current financial climate?
The fact that we still have scouts the world over shows how seriously the club takes this process. The financial landscape in football has changed a lot over the last few years because there's so much money involved now. With new money from media rights and so many new owners prepared to spend on players clubs definitely have to spend a bit. But sides like Leicester City have shown that there's another way. You can still build an amazing team without spending millions and millions. And that's great for me in my job.
Joel is showing us that there are still players out there who no-one knows about that can come in and do a job.
And the other thing of course for me to consider in the States is do they have a European passport. Joel was an exception because [under European Union rules] he'd played in 75% of games for his national team, but it's a vital consideration.