World Cup 2022: Manasquan NJ native helps lead security for US team in Qatar

Special Agent Philip “PJ” Nice (left) protects the U.S. Men's National Team during an autograph session following a practice at Al-Gharafa Stadium in Doha, Qatar on November 16, 2022.
Special Agent Philip “PJ” Nice (left) protects the U.S. Men's National Team during an autograph session following a practice at Al-Gharafa Stadium in Doha, Qatar on November 16, 2022.

In the run-up to their opening game in the World Cup, 16 members of the U.S. men’s national soccer team ventured into the Souq Waqif, a famed marketplace in Qatar's capital city of Doha.

They wanted to do a little shopping and sightseeing. For Philip “PJ” Nice, a special agent with the U.S. Department of State assigned to protect the team, there was nothing leisurely about it.

The 38-year-old Nice, who grew up in Manasquan, was one of six government agents and two team-hired security guards who accompanied the players to the market. When the players split up, so did they, focusing on the higher-profile guys who are more likely to be recognized in public.

“We made sure all 16 had somebody nearby to consult if anything were to happen – if someone got in their face with a camera, they could turn to us and say, ‘Help me out,’” Nice said in a phone interview earlier this week.

Sure enough, U.S. star Christian Pulisic and teammate Sergino Dest, who like Pulisic plays on a prominent club in Europe, looked his way after the attention became too much. The goal for Nice in this instance is not just to extricate Pulisic from the crowd, but to do so in a manner that doesn’t spark unrest.

Special Agent Philip “PJ” Nice protects the U.S. Men's National Team during an autograph session following a practice at Al-Gharafa Stadium in Doha, Qatar on November 16, 2022.
Special Agent Philip “PJ” Nice protects the U.S. Men's National Team during an autograph session following a practice at Al-Gharafa Stadium in Doha, Qatar on November 16, 2022.

“As diplomatic security officers, maybe we have a little more tact (than standard team security) in understanding international fans and foreign cultures,” Nice said. “So we can step in and say, ‘This guy’s tired, he’s done with photos. What do you want to know?’”

It’s a fascinating assignment for Nice, who will be on the field Tuesday when the Americans take on Iran in a win-or-go-home match. He grew up playing soccer and still laces up the cleats in an adult league near his home in the Washington, D.C. area.

“This is a dream, man,” he said. “I’m really happy to be here.”

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Does the beer ban help?

Nice’s parents worked for the U.S. government in foreign service. He attended high school in Turkey and later Uruguay, where he was introduced to the beautiful game. He has tickets to Uruguay’s Dec. 2 match against Ghana.

“They taught me how to play and I’ve been a huge fan ever since,” he said.

After graduating from Georgetown University, Nice entered the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service in 2008. He helps provide protection for diplomats and U.S. embassies. His office also handles security for American athletes in the Olympics and men’s and women’s World Cup. This is his first international sporting event on the job.

“It’s very different,” he said, compared to the typical assignment. “We’re dealing with a lot of different direction between FIFA, the Qatari ministry of the interior and the U.S. men’s national team. It’s very difficult to make everybody see the same picture and work on the same page.”

The priorities of these stakeholders vary greatly.

“We’re trying to conduct threat investigations, make sure these guys are protected, and enforce security protocol from a law enforcement perspective,” Nice explained, “while FIFA is looking more toward the event and Qatar is most worried about incoming westerners adhering to their own policies, which are different from anywhere in Europe and the U.S.”

Ultimately, he said, Qatari officials have the final say. For example: the controversial ban on stadium beer sales. Asked if the ban makes his job easier, Nice laughed.

“No. Are you kidding me?” he said. “Mexican and English fans are way more calm when drinking beer. You have all these fans asleep in the stands if they’re drinking beer. Now everybody is active and lucid and (some of them are) angry; they want to cause problems. For me, come on, I attended the Mexico-Poland game (as a civilian) and it was the first time I’ve been in a stadium without a beer since I was 16 years old.”

During U.S. matches, Nice is one of four state department agents who are embedded with the team at field level. Other agents sit with the team’s family members in the stands and some roam the stadium, eying “some overly passionate fan groups,” as Nice put it.

“We travel with the team to the stadium, we accompany them to the door of the locker room, we go in and walk the field to make sure we don’t see anyone without credentials or anyone on any wanted list, or suspicious characters,” he said. “Then we post ourselves on field level in areas where we can see the bench and the friends and family, but also the major fan groups, the ones we know sometimes get rowdy.”

The task grows more urgent with each of the U.S. team’s three scheduled group-phase matches.

Risk rising each game

Before each game, the Diplomatic Security Service works with Qatari ministry of interior officials to assess the threat level. The U.S. World Cup opener, a 1-1 draw with Wales, was considered a “low-risk” security event, Nice said. He characterized Friday's 0-0 draw between the U.S. and England as medium-risk “because the English team is more high-profile and their fans can be quite rowdy” and there’s so much history and a sense of rivalry between the two nations.

“We’ll be on alert, but maybe not as much as U.S.-Iran based on the political implications that it has currently,” Nice said. “This has a lot to do with football, but more to do with politics – especially at a World Cup. That’s what makes this one especially unique.”

Although his job is to blend into the background, Nice does appreciate getting a close-up look at the U.S. team, which is the second-youngest at this World Cup. Like him, most of the players are on this stage for the first time.

“The focus that they have is real,” he said. “They are here to do their best and they’re really pumped to be here. I can definitely see that.”

He’ll be there as long as the Americans keep playing. The U.S. men have advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals just once, in 2002.

“We’ll see how long we last,” he said. “We’re hoping for history.”

Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: FIFA World Cup 2022: Special Agent PJ Nice protecting USMNT