Luis Robles goes from MLS player to World Cup travel manager

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Felix Brambilla (left), the CEO of Overseas Network, and Luis Robles, World Cup project manager, during one of their trips to Qatar as they prepare for the 2022 World Cup

Luis Robles

Former Inter Miami goalkeeper and captain Luis Robles dreamed of playing in a World Cup from his days as a youth soccer player in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, to his early pro years in Germany until Jan. 6, 2021, when he announced his retirement after a career-ending arm fracture.

He will finally fulfill his dream – with a twist.

Robles, 37, will be managing visitor hospitality at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which runs from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18.

He landed the dream job last May after several months trying to figure out what to do post-retirement. He considered graduate school. He explored front office jobs with Inter Miami and other MLS clubs. He even delivered groceries for Instacart for a brief period because he was tired of sitting around his Parkland home.

Then, a phone call with former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati led Robles to Felix Brambilla, CEO of Coral Gables-based Overseas Network, the official U.S. agent for MATCH hospitality at the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Overseas is in a joint venture with Premier Partnership and Elevate Sports Ventures and their mission is to provide World Cup visitors with tickets, lodging and unique cultural experiences.

As it happens, Robles’ new office is directly across the street from Inter Miami’s business office.

Robles joined Overseas on May 1, 2021, and has since made multiple trips to Qatar, including a three-week stay during the recent Arab Cup, a test event for the World Cup.

“I always thought as a teenager and professional soccer player that I’d go to the World Cup as a player and instead I am going as a manager in event hospitality,” Robles said. “It’s a dream come true.”

Although he knew nothing about the hospitality industry, Robles earned a Finance degree from the University of Portland and got some business acumen as a longtime executive of the MLS Players Association.

“Even though I was probably underqualified, Felix let me into his ecosystem and has mentored me, corrected me, rebuked me at times, and educated me to reinvent who I am. Now, when I meet people, I don’t introduce myself as Luis Robles former professional soccer player. I introduce myself as Luis Robles, manager of the World Cup project for Overseas.”

Brambilla has been involved in the past seven World Cups. Like many soccer fans around the world, when he heard about Qatar, he had doubts.

“When this opportunity first came up, I was one of the people wondering what was the logic of hosting the World Cup in Qatar,” Brambilla said. “I wouldn’t say I was skeptical, but I wanted answers. It took our first trip last June to get answers.”

Brambilla and Robles are well aware of the ongoing concerns about the Cup host’s human rights history and other humanitarian issues such as anti-homosexuality laws. But they both said their perceptions of the gulf nation changed having spent extended time there.

“Football is going to be able to fill its missions like never before,” Brambilla said. “We’re going to bring together populations that don’t understand each other, that are full of cliches towards each other. When Luis met me there in June, being from a family with military background he was arriving with those apprehensions. Will I be welcome there? Will I be understood?”

The answer is yes, Robles and Brambilla said.

“I was pleasantly surprised because you have preconceived notions about what a place is like,” Robles said. “My brother served in Iraq and Afghanistan. My Dad has this incredibly proud tradition and heritage of military perspective. So that’s where I was coming from.

“So many of us have little exposure to the Middle East and the one thing that really sticks out after being there is the hospitality. They are warm and genuine and that catches you off guard because you’re already formulated this idea of who these people are. The World Cup allows us to share experiences and learn from each other.”

Brambilla added: “We found a country that was more open-minded from what we expected. They want to be a bridge between the Middle East and the rest of the world. This is not propaganda in any way. This is not something that has been fed to us by FIFA or anybody else. This is a human feeling you get when you go there, when you find yourself with Qatari families and ex-pats who are over there.”

They found out that Qatari families like to camp in the desert on weekends and visit sand dunes, so they are incorporating those activities into their travel packages. They are building two Bedouin-inspired camps, one in the southern dunes area and a larger one in the desert that will include entertainment venues and a lighted soccer field. They are offering ATV rides, camel rides and falcon handling experiences.

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Visitors to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be treated to traditional Bedouin meals in campgrounds. Luis Robles

After attending the Arab Cup they both firmly believe the World Cup fan experience will be better than what skeptics fear. The stadiums were full of enthusiastic fans – men, women and children. The eight stadiums are all within driving distance of each other, so fans will be able to see multiple games in a day if they want. And, yes, fans will be allowed to celebrate with alcohol.

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Stadiums were full for the 2021 Arab Cup in Qatar, a test event for the 2022 World Cup Luis Robles

“A lot of people are asking, `Will I be able to celebrate in a Muslim country?’ Yes, you will,” Brambilla said. “The Qatari culture doesn’t involve alcohol, but they are welcoming Western visitors and saying `You can celebrate in the manner you enjoy, but let’s respect each other.’’’

Fans interested in traveling to the Qatar World Cup can get information at https://usa.match-hospitality.com/

IF YOU WANT TO GO…

2022 World Cup

Where: Qatar

When: Nov. 21-Dec. 18, 2022

Teams: 32

Venues: Eight air-conditioned outdoor stadiums

For tickets, lodging, tourist packages: https://usa.match-hospitality.com/

This story was originally published January 14, 2022 8:50 PM.

Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, Super Bowls and has been the soccer writer and University of Miami basketball beat writer for 25 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.