My post for the New York Times on Tuesday about Bora Milutnovic in Qatar was based on a day I spent with the Serbian coaching legend a month ago. Cruising around Doha in Bora’s Nissan SUV as he bounced between hailing Qatar’s greatness and proffering life advice counts as one of the more surreal experiences of my life. Not everything from the 10-plus hours I spent with Bora could make it into the piece, so I’ve included some other highlights below.
- It was hard to tell how much Bora actually knew (or cared) about what exactly I was doing in Qatar, but he was fascinated by the idea of a 22-year-old American journalist in the Middle East. Within five minutes of picking me up outside the Islamic Art Museum, he started to offer career advice, including a suggestion that I go to Afghanistan and/or Syria. I told him I’d think about it, but that the two seemed a little dangerous at the moment and Egypt was treating me well. Bora seemed unimpressed by the logic.
- Our first stop was the hotel where the Qatari Under 19 national team’s competitors in an upcoming tournament were staying. Before we made it across the lobby to the cafe, Bora made sure to introduce himself to the Greek team milling about the entrance. Extending both arms fully forward, Superman-style, he shouted “Greece!” and started semi-running in their direction. A few of the players, no doubt too young to recognize from his heyday this short bespectacled man with the messy silver hair, stared at him the way one might an overly bellicose vagrant in the street.
- Besides Qatar and Qatari soccer, Bora’s main interest these days seems to be his “Tweeeeter” account (it took me a few times to understand what he was referring to) in China. Bora regularly sends messages to someone in China (where he coached from 2000-2002) to translate. I’m still not sure if it’s a Twitter or some Chinese microblog (Twitter’s banned in China, mish keda?), but I can attest to the fact that Bora has over 850,000 followers. He joked (or maybe not?) that he planned to return to China once he hit 1 million.
- The content on his “Tweeeeter” was of the utmost concern to Bora. He planned to begin sharing every Monday an inspirational quote he’d read somewhere with his followers. (Bora’s a sucker for inspirational quotes, especially from Vince Lombardi and John Wooden. They’re all over Aspire Academy.) I was enlisted to draft a brief message informing Bora’s followers of this upcoming offering. I considered demanding a fee, but chose to do this one pro bono. So, there’s a good chance that my three-sentence statement inviting people in China to read “inspirational messages [Bora’s] encountered that help [him] make better sense of life” is floating around the Chinese interwebs. If you see it, let me know.
- The Under-19s’ practice featured a visit from Qatari Football Association President Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Ahmad Al Thani, a member of the royal family. After greeting all the players, he sat on the sideline, half-observing practice, while simultaneously sipping tea, texting, and fielding phone calls through his head set.
- There’s not much to do in Qatar besides drive your (very expensive) car really fast. According to one of the coaches, insurance companies refuse to insure expensive cars. He relayed a bit of advice he’d heard: “If you’re gonna buy a car, make sure you have enough money to buy it twice.”
- Before the party, Bora and I made a stop at a flower shop. It turned out Bora’s Serbian expat friend whose wife’s birthday party we were headed to did not have a present for his wife. And so, it evidently became Bora’s responsibility to get one for her. After he spent a half-hour cutting and packing as many woodchips as humanly possible into the glass box holding the flower pot and then bargaining the price down 20 Qatari Riyal, I was enlisted in the car to hold the box perfectly still between my thighs, lest one of the White Wonder lilies be damaged en route. Which explains why when we arrived at the house, the birthday girl opened the front door to find a slightly confused-looking American she’d never seen before bearing her husband’s birthday gift.
- Humblebrag: Bora was very impressed by my soccer abilities. In fact, I even beat him in a few games of soccer golf before the U-19s’ practice (although he’d never admit it). “American journalist with good touch,” he kept repeating bemusedly. I tried to explain that I’d played my entire life, including Division 1 ball just last year. Bora did after all coach in the US and has a house in California. It was to no avail. His last words to me as he dropped me off at the hotel: “I’m very pleased to meet you—an American with a good touch!”