DOHA, Qatar — “Grant!!!”
I turned on a dime in the airport, where I had just landed after a 24-hour journey to the World Cup. Who’s calling my name? And how can they recognize me with my mask on?
It was Bora. Of course it was.
Bora Milutinovic, the peripatetic Serb who coached the U.S. at World Cup 1994 and Mexico at World Cup 1986, who also coached Costa Rica and Nigeria and China at the planet’s biggest sporting event, gave me a big hug. Bora has lived for more than a decade in Qatar, whose World Cup candidacy he spoke on behalf of when the small Middle East nation won the right to host this event in 2010.
And I swear to god this is true: I ran into Bora randomly at the Zurich airport when I landed there in December 2010 on the day before FIFA gave this World Cup to Qatar in the first place. Talk about coming full circle.
Where have Bora and I connected over the years? 1) At a train station in Nantes, France after his Nigeria beat Spain 3-2 at World Cup 1998. 2) In the remote southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, where we spent a week together for a story ahead of World Cup 2002. 3) In my rental car in Johannesburg when Bora was coaching Iraq at the 2009 Confederations Cup. And 4) Here in Doha in 2013 when I came to write a story about the Qatar World Cup.
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Heck, Bora is going to be front and center in Good Rivals, the three-episode documentary film on the USA-Mexico rivalry that comes out November 24 on Prime Video. (I’m a producer on it.)
I feel like I could go on a vacation to Antarctica, and somehow Bora would be there waiting for me with some penguins that he had coached up into a decent XI.
It was great to catch up with a legend. And I don’t think there could have been a better omen to kick things off on Day 1.
Today was a good day. I was absolutely exhausted when I landed at 1 pm Qatar time after a three-legged flight in coach from Newark to Toronto to Cairo to Doha. (When you’ve got United miles and can get the flight for free, you suck it up for the good of your startup.) The best news was that my two pieces of checked luggage made it, which I thought had about a 50% chance of happening.
After talking to Bora, getting a SIM card for my burner phone and pulling out some cash—for some reason taxi drivers here don’t like taking credit cards—I realized I had to go straight from the airport to the U.S. training site at Al Gharafa Stadium if I wanted to make it in time for Gregg Berhalter’s 3 pm press conference.
Unfortunately, though, it took too long (almost 45 minutes) to go through security with my two big bags and get a temporary accreditation, and I missed Berhalter. There wasn’t a lot to miss, however. He said he expects Weston McKennie, who has been dealing with an injury, to be in full training very soon. And he got asked about Bora, who gave Berhalter his first cap (“Bora is a genius”).
And he talked about “Be the Change”—the USMNT’s motto on everything from human rights in Qatar to its original use in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. U.S. Soccer went out of its way to put up a rainbow shield at its training site in Qatar, which outlaws same-sex relationships. That got plenty of coverage in international newspapers like The Guardian on Monday.
“We’ve been talking to the team for the last 18 months about Qatar, about some social issues in Qatar,” Berhalter said. “And we think it’s important that when we are on the world stage and you are in a venue like Qatar, it’s important to bring awareness to these issues.”
As U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson put it: “We are a group who believes in inclusivity, and we will continue to project that message going forward.”
The other good news is that Uber is working just fine in Doha, so I took an Uber from the training site 10 minutes to check into the townhouse I’m staying in for the next 37 days with my journalist friends Guillem Balagué, Raphael Honigstein and James Horncastle (who all arrive later this week). The place looks great, and it costs less than half of what my other housing option would have cost. Go on a tour here:
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See you tomorrow!
"I feel like I could go on a vacation to Antarctica, and somehow Bora would be there waiting for me with some penguins that he had coached up into a decent XI."
Your place looks a bit nicer than the storage crates some fans are going to be staying in...