A Mainer goes to Qatar for soccer — and finds a fascination with the United States

It was a long way from the Ri Ra pub in the Old Port in Portland, but the games and the culture of the Persian Gulf nation were intense.
View from the crowd of a World Cup soccer game
The view from the crowd during the U.S. men's national team World Cup match against England in Al Kohr, Qatar. Photo by Hal Madsen.

Well, didn’t that beat all. There I was, a 70-year-old from Portland, trudging through the Arabian desert under a starlit sky, about an hour after sundown, with nothing around except my walking companions, a middle-aged Jordanian man and a 20-something woman from Argentina.

Not what I pictured while planning to attend the World Cup men’s soccer tournament in Qatar, a peninsula of a country that borders Saudi Arabia to the west, and the Persian Gulf everywhere else.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. On this night I took a shuttle bus from the main marketplace in Doha, the country’s capital, to a stadium in the oddly named suburb of Education City. Tunisia was playing France, the defending champion, in a first-round game and the bus was packed with young male Tunisians, chanting and singing for what was expected to be a half-hour or so ride.

When an hour went by, it became obvious: The driver was lost. The Tunisians who desperately wanted to be there for the start of the game implored him to listen, to follow their GPS directions, but it wasn’t happening. And with a little more than an hour before kickoff, the driver made a left-hand turn onto a dark, unpaved road that led to a dead end. In the distance were lights that appeared to be a stadium, and that was enough for the Tunisians. They demanded the doors be opened and when they were, they sprang out of the bus and began running toward the lights.

Three people remained and we told the driver we didn’t mind being late, just get us to the stadium. Again, wasn’t happening. The driver said he was heading back downtown and our choices were to go with him or get out. We got out — although the Argentine woman wasn’t happy about being stranded in the desert with two unknown men — and started what turned into a three-mile trek.

To think I could have stayed home and watched the game with other soccer enthusiasts at the Ri Ra pub in the Old Port in Portland.

But then, plans that go perfectly well are boring. This was an adventure that could have gone sideways but instead turned into a bonding. We started laughing at the absurdity, and a story that will long be remembered was born.

In the end, we missed 11 minutes and no goals of the 90-minute game.

The World Cup. I spent 2 1/2 weeks attending 13 games, including the four U.S. games, and meeting so many people from around the world. It was my fourth World Cup, the others in the U.S., France and South Korea, and it never gets old.

While the games are what brought fans to Qatar, a country smaller than all but two U.S. states, Delaware and Rhode Island, the opportunity to meet so many from around the world was also an attraction. Breakfast with a Bolivian who often travels to Minneapolis for work; a bus ride with a mid-20s Egyptian who couldn’t wait to return home to his wife and children, ages 5, 3 and 1; sharing a subway with a man from Japan who recently moved to Dallas.

And so many more. I asked directions from a policeman who wanted to know if I was an American. I said yes and he said he was from Sudan, with relatives in Washington and Arizona. I told him we had many people from Sudan and Somalia in my city, and his smile became as bright as could be while he shook my hand.

On one subway, I started talking with four Americans from New York, two men and two women. I asked if they had taken a direct flight and one of the men said yes … and he had flown the plane. It was a pilot, co-pilot and two flight attendants on a layover.

Hal and a Netherlands fan, who is dressed with an orange cape and windmill, pose for a photo outside the stadium
Hal Madsen, left, poses for a photo with a Dutch fan at what would be the United States’ final World Cup match.

I also spent time talking with people from Mauritius, Nepal, Indonesia, India, Germany, England … too many to recall. And one thing stood out: Almost to a person they still idolized the dream that is America, still looked to our country as a beacon, but most also couldn’t understand how Donald Trump remains so popular and why it seems everyone has a gun.

Surprisingly, most of the people I met were at least aware of Maine, although some weren’t sure exactly where it was. One person’s face lit up when Maine was mentioned … Lobster!

Still, the World Cup is about the games, and for a young United States team, the second-youngest in Qatar, it was a time of drama. The Americans were grouped with Wales, England and, good lord, Iran. The teams play each other once, with three points for a win and one for a tie. The top two teams progress to the tournament’s knockout rounds, where each game is an elimination game, and the other two go home.

The U.S. opener against Wales was a disappointment. The Americans scored in the first half, then conceded a late goal on a penalty kick and finished in a tie. Then came England, one of the pre-tournament favorites. The U.S. played its best game but was victimized by its biggest weakness, an inability to score, and the night ended 0-0.

That set up the game against Iran. The U.S. had to win. A tie or loss and its World Cup was over. Iran would advance with anything but a loss.

The game was played against a backdrop of off-the-field drama. The protests in Iran carried over the Persian Gulf to the games, where women against the regime were harassed outside stadiums by pro-government men. The Qatari police had been accused of looking the other way.

Between the possible protests and the importance of the game — plus the fact the stadium felt like it was in downtown Tehran, packed with Iranians who had to fly just an hour to get there — the tension was as thick as any I’ve felt at a sporting event, and I’ve been to many.

The U.S. scored late in the first half and held on for a 1-0 victory, and indeed there was trouble in Iran, where numerous anti-government protestors celebrated their country’s loss and one man was shot to death.

In Qatar overall, safety was not a concern. The country is among the safest in the world and showed it. There were nights I was walking the downtown streets at 3 a.m., returning from a late game, with not a hint of trouble.

And it was fun to see four women with burqas stop by a stage where two female singers were performing in, well, much less clothing. So what did the burqa-clad women do? They whipped out cellphones and started recording. The music really was good.

Qatar has drawn criticism for its anti-alcohol stance and its outlawing of homosexuality. Police were told to crack down on fans bringing any gay pride emblems into games and indeed, I was stopped and told to unfurl my U.S. scarf to make sure it contained no gay pride references.

The stances are part of Qatar’s core beliefs, but may conflict with its hopes of attracting tourism once the tournament ends.

For the U.S., the World Cup ended in the Round of 16, the first game of the knockout rounds, with a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands. Again, fans mingled outside the stadium and celebrated inside.

In four years, the event will be jointly hosted by the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and yes, I do plan to catch a few games.

And do it without being stranded in a desert.


Hal Madsen

Hal Madsen has been a journalist for 50 years, including 44 with the Portland Press Herald, where he won state and regional awards for writing and editing. He also spent six years at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where he was assistant sports editor and covered Triple-A baseball, as well as the heydays of championship boxing and UNLV basketball.
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