For someone who loves travel and loves soccer, there really was only one destination over the past month.
Wilson Road resident Bassim Ibrahim and two of his children, Chloe, 12, and Cameron, 9, have returned from a week in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, where they attended World Cup soccer matches and reveled in the panoply of cultures that accompanied the quadrennial tournament.
“We ended up going to four games, which is unusual because most of the time you have to fly between cities,” Ibrahim related. “This is the first time a country this small has been awarded the World Cup. There were seven or eight stadiums, all a half-hour away from downtown Doha. I was able to go to two games in one day – that’s unheard of.”
“Everyone from every nation was there. Almost everywhere in the world, soccer is the number one sport,” he said. “We talked to a lot of people from around the world. People actually bring their children to the games, and the children have a good time.”
Ibrahim added, “I felt this was an educational trip. We met people from nations you may never even heard of and we got to be amongst them.”
The travelers are passionate about soccer. Chloe, a seventh grader, competes for her school, Lexington Christian Academy, as well as club soccer in fall and winter. Cameron, in grade four at Lane School, is a goalkeeper on his Bedford Youth Soccer team. Both began playing soccer as preschoolers. Their father grew up in football-happy Walpole, where he played soccer through high school.
After securing World Cup game tickets – no easy feat – the family’s next pre-tourney challenge was lodging.
“It got to the point where the only thing available was a tent for $200 a night or a converted tractor trailer. We were struggling,” Ibrahim recounted. Then a miracle: “A couple of weeks before the World Cup, a hotel opened up availability. We were among the lucky ones.” He added, even though “it was a little more expensive.”
(The hotel had a “UN Feel,” Ibrahim said, and the pool featured a giant screen so guests could watch World Cup action. Chloe said kids played pick-up soccer near the pool; she was juggling a ball on the sideline when it deflected into a nearby bush, where it was immediately deflated by cactus spines.)
They flew Qatari Airways out of Boston for 12 hours, arriving on Nov. 19, two days before the first game, and spent the week of Thanksgiving waiting for the World Cup. On the holiday, “we went out for Lebanese food,” Ibrahim said.
This was Ibrahim’s third World Cup, after attending events in South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014). (Four years ago, the U.S. team failed to qualify.) Thanks to those tournaments, “I got to go on a safari and see lions and elephants crossing the road, I got to see the Amazon and beautiful beaches, and I got to enjoy soccer.”
Ibrahim said he is “Egyptian culturally,” and speaks and understands some Arabic, which made the stay in Qatar more meaningful. “It was fairly easy, seeing we know the language.” His wife Miret, who was born in Egypt, had a conflict and missed this trip, her husband said.
Fans of the Mexico team are renowned for their enthusiasm. “In the middle of one game, they took over the whole stadium, from every angle,” Ibrahim said – and Mexico wasn’t playing. Later, walking with his kids through the Doha marketplace, “the Mexican fans had taken over the souk and they were just chanting again, walking shoulder-to-shoulder through this market.”
At the game between the U.S. and England (which ended in a scoreless tie), fan support became personal for the Ibrahims. An artist from Peru, Nicole Bure, a friend of Bassim from past World Cups, painted their faces with American motifs.
And then there were some special T-shirts just for the occasion. “My shirt said, ‘Too cool for British rule,’” Chloe reported.
Her brother’s shirt made a reference to 1776. “My shirt had a picture of George Washington wearing USA sunglasses and the message ‘Brexit 1776’,” Ibrahim said. “The British fans actually thought it was funny – it’s really a friendly rivalry.”
“The U.S. fans are like crazy – they go all out,” Chloe said. “There’s a lot of face paint – people dressed as Ben Franklin, the Statue of Liberty, a bald eagle. When the U.S. scored, everyone was jumping and screaming.” Her father added, “If you do this, you go all out.”
There were matches every day at 1, 4, 7, and 10 p.m., Ibrahim said. In addition to the U.S. contests with Wales and England, the group attended Germany vs. Japan and Belgium vs. Canada.
Ibrahim pointed out the unusual demographics of the country. “Qatar doesn’t have a lot of citizens. All of the laborers come from Bangladesh, the Philippines, Pakistan, India. They’re the drivers, the people running the restaurants – we saw zero Qataris doing labor.”
He acknowledged that during construction of the stadiums and ancillary projects such as the subway, “The Qataris have not been very nice in terms of workers’ rights.” He said he considered whether or not by attending, the family was sanctioning abuses. The counterargument, he said, is that the family assisted foreign workers by using their services. “There’s never an easy answer. It’s always complicated.”
“They had six years to prepare and it was still very unorganized,” Cameron observed. “They ended up hiring 1,000 people just to point out where stuff was – like a guy with a megaphone saying the same thing over and over: ‘This way to the metro.’”
He wondered what will happen to the new infrastructure when the tournament is over: “Leave the metro for the citizens so they will use it – never?”
Cameron has already shared his experiences formally with his classmates at Lane. “Every time someone in our class travels, our teacher asks us to take photos and notes and bring them back,” he explained.