No Higher Thing

By Morgan Phillips

Ivan Navarrette worked to prepare the playing field at Lusail Stadium in Qatar for the World Cup.

Featured photo: Ivan Navarrette worked to prepare the playing field at Lusail Stadium in Qatar for the World Cup.

It’s all downhill after this. There’s no higher thing than the World Cup.

The words hung in the air as the two friends sat on the balcony of their hotel. The shimmering waters of the Persian Gulf lay below in the distance and towering skyscrapers surrounded them. Ivan Navarrete pondered his friend’s words.

At just 23 years old and a senior studying turfgrass science and management at the UT Institute of Agriculture, had he reached the height of his career before it had even begun? He and his friend had just finished their semester-long internship preparing playing fields for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

The journey began seven years ago on a Loudon County golf course.

“One day I was thinking, ‘I need a job,’” says Navarrete. “And then it hit me that I already had one. I never felt like I was working; I just loved it.”

He would have been content with this, mowing and seeding and tending to the course forever, but his opportunities were much broader than he realized. With encouragement from teachers and loved ones, Navarrete enrolled in the turfgrass science and management program.

Navarrete planned to one day return to the greens, but then his world grew larger. A lifelong soccer fanatic, he became curious about the turf management side of the sport after he enrolled in classes. With the help of John Sorochan, a distinguished professor of turfgrass science and management and Navarrete’s advisor, he quickly found himself off the fairways and on some of the world’s most prominent athletic stages. Through summer internships, he worked for Major League Soccer team FC Cincinnati and then Tottenham Hotspur Football Club in London.

“If it wasn’t for Sorochan, I wouldn’t have had any of these opportunities,” says Navarrete. “I have so much to thank him for.”

Navarrete was walking back from the Tottenham fields one evening during the 2022 summer when Sorochan called. A turf management position was available in Qatar for the World Cup.

Navarrete spent the fall 2022 semester catering to Lusail Stadium’s field: monitoring moisture levels, supplying light and hoping that an oasis in the desert would appear just in time for the first game. In suitable conditions, grass takes at least nine weeks to fully develop. The World Cup was in eight.

“It was nerve wracking,” says Navarrete, the only undergraduate turf manager at the World Cup. “I would hate for people to know that I have this huge opportunity, and then something bad happens to the field, and they immediately think of me.”

Whatever the magic is that turfgrass experts like Navarrete possess, it worked. The field was in pristine playing condition for the first match at Lusail and remained that way until the last.

After he graduates in December, Navarrete plans to pursue his master’s degree in turfgrass science and management from UTIA. As he continues his studies, he’ll work with UTIA in Mexico to prepare fields for the 2026 World Cup.

What seemed like a career peak is just the start of a climb.