Click photo to enlarge
Iran's player Steven Beitashour is pictured during the friendly football match Iran vs Angola in preparation for the FIFA World Cup 2014 on May 30, 2014 in Hartberg, Austria. AFP PHOTO / SAMUEL KUBANI (Photo credit should read SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images)

San Jose native Steven Beitashour wasn't about to let international politics squash his World Cup dream.

Instead of donning the colors of his country this month in Brazil, Beitashour is wearing the white and red of Iran.

Now the player finds himself enmeshed in the long-running conflict between the Great Satan, as Iran sometimes calls America, and the Axis of Evil, in which the United States places the Islamic republic. Yet all the one-time San Jose Earthquakes' defender seeks is the experience of a lifetime.

"I'm not there to cause any problems," said Beitashour, 27, before departing to Brazil. "I'm not there for any flash. I'm there for the love of the game."

The son of Iranian immigrants hopes to realize a lifelong soccer dream Monday when he and Team Melli, as Iran is known, open the tournament against Nigeria.

While such moves are common in globalized soccer -- the United States boasts seven foreigners on its World Cup roster -- Beitashour's switch to Iran has ignited a social media backlash. (One reader comment posted on the New York Times' website: "America gave him all the opportunities that Iran did not and never could. ... If he's confused, let him leave this country and go to Iran and he'll see how much choice he has there.")

The decision to play for his parents' country led to much debate, but "Steve will be the first person to tell you, it doesn't matter what people say, it matters what you feel," said Ali Kompanian, who has read many of the negative comments about his childhood friend.

Beitashour, Iran's projected starting right fullback, hopes he can help foster understanding between countries that have been at odds since United States embassy personnel were taken hostage in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

If he had his choice, Beitashour would represent the United States this summer. He accepted Iran's invitation in October only when it became clear U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann had no interest.

It probably was his only chance to appear in the world's biggest sporting event as Beitashour will be 31 for the 2018 tournament in Russia.

"Steven wanted to be in the World Cup," his father Edward Beitashour said. "How could he refuse? If this was his option, he had to take it."

FIFA, the sport's governing organization, allows players to switch teams if they have at least one parent or grandparent who was born in the other country, or if the player has been a resident of the new country for at least two years.

Beitashour (pronounced BAIT-uh-sure) has never represented the United States in an international game on any level, meaning his eligibility to play for Iran without special permission from FIFA never was an issue.

"As a player you're always looking for whoever opens the door for you and be thankful for that," said U.S. midfielder Joe Corona, who suffered the wrath of the Mexican and Salvadoran communities of his parents when he chose his birth country.

Upgrading team

Beitashour is part of coach Carlos Queiroz's attempt to upgrade the Iranian team. Most of the players come from the mediocre domestic league, a situation Queiroz has bemoaned. The former Portugal and Real Madrid coach also recruited Dutch-Iranian Reza Ghoochannejhad from English side Charlton Athletic and midfielder Ashkan Dejagah of Fulham in the Premier League. He had Beitashour on his radar for three years.

Teammates and fans have welcomed Beitashour warmly though he hadn't visited Iran in 22 years.

"Every time I go over there I feel more and more comfortable," said the American, who understands Farsi better than he speaks it.

Iran's players might not be world renowned, but they are revered at home no matter where they grew up. When Team Melli qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time since 2006, millions of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran to celebrate.

"That's all they have over there," Beitashour's childhood friend Mahan Bozorginia said. "They love the players."

But Beitashour also experienced first hand the cultural differences between his home and Iran. When he made his debut in October in a qualifying game for the 2015 Asian Cup, his mother Pari Beitashour couldn't watch even though she was in Tehran visiting family. Women are prohibited from attending games at the national stadium.

A recent New York Times story reported that operators of Tehran movie theaters have been told by police that they are prohibited from showing World Cup games to mixed audiences of men and women.

Beitashour's father is Christian Assyrian, his mother Muslim. In San Jose, the couple and their four children celebrated traditional Persian holidays, such as the first day of spring. They also celebrated Christmas.

"We're as American as anyone else," said brother Anthony Beitashour, a Santa Monica realtor. "We don't consider ourselves outsiders."

Backyard ball

Beitashour discovered soccer through his father, who enrolled his two boys in an Almaden club after they started kicking the ball around in the backyard.

Ed Beitashour, 71, played at San Francisco State in the 1960s while earning an engineering degree. He later became one of Apple's first electrical engineers.

Beitashour's passion for soccer grew as a child. He worked as a ball boy for the San Jose Clash, the team now called the Earthquakes. The boy wouldn't eat hamburgers or drink sodas in order to take care of his body.

"How many kids do you find with such self discipline?" asked his father.

Beitashour, 5-feet-10, 170 pounds, graduated from Leland High in 2005 as one of the best athletes in school history. School officials retired his number in the fall, the only athlete other than Pat Tillman to have been so honored.

But without playing on U.S. youth national teams, Beitashour got few college scholarship offers. He walked on at San Diego State, earning a scholarship after one year. He also caught the attention of the Earthquakes, who drafted him 30th overall in 2010. Beitashour became one of Major League Soccer's premier right fullbacks who could charge down the flank to join the offense as well as retreat to defend.

The Earthquakes traded him to the Vancouver Whitecaps in the offseason because of salary limitations.

As the World Cup approached, Beitashour remained as locked-in for soccer as ever. Friends have texted to remind him to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience. It probably will be over quickly for the underdog Iranians.

Beitashour isn't about to relax, though. He's come a long way for his World Cup moment and will surely relish his time on the pitch in Brazil regardless of the jersey he's wearing.

"He loves soccer for the sake of soccer," his father said.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.