Last year I finally managed to visit North Korea. For over ten years I have been trying to get in to the Hermit Kingdom, by far the most secretive and repressive state in the world, to find out about football there.
Despite its isolation, North Korea has qualified for two men’s World Cups and four women’s finals. How do they do it? And what does football look like in North Korea? What about the league? And were the famous team that reached the quarter finals in 1966 really punished on their return to Pyongyang for carousing with women before the match against Portugal?
All these were answered, and more, in this long read for the Bleacher Report. It was an unforgettable trip, largely because North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb on my second day there.
Back in February, I thought months of hard work had come to nothing.
Since last year I had been trying to get a reporting visa into Iran. Team Meli had easily qualified for the World Cup and were, to my mind at least, the best team in Asia. But as ever with Iran, who qualified with ease, football only told half the story.
For the last few games of qualification the real world had impinged on the party. After Iran had qualified, at a reception with President Rouhani, the team’s captain Masoud Shojaei asked him to lift the ban on women entering Iran’s football stadiums. A few months later he was dropped from the team after an outcry by conservative law makers when he played for his Greek team Panionios in a Europa League match against Maccabi Tel Aviv. Iran maintains an unofficial ban against any Iranian sportsmen or women competing against Israelis. In the middle of all this was the team’s combative coach Carlos Queiroz.
So, I wanted to write more about what was going on in Iran, by first going to the Tehran Derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal, one of the biggest matches in world football. But with no visa, that seemed impossible. And then, on the morning I was supposed to leave, my visa suddenly arrived. A few hours later I was in Tehran at the beginning of a four month journey that took me to Iran, Greece, Austria and, ultimately, to St Petersburg for Iran’s first game of the 2018 World Cup finals.
The result was this long read for the Bleacher Report. It gives a little background to Iran’s amazing campaign, but also to some of the forces that underpin Iranian society, and the people who are bravely trying to fight against them.
It seems like only yesterday Sepp Blatter announced on stage in Zurich that Russia and Qatar would be hosting the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals. In a way, we are still dealing with the fall out from both those decisions. So, on the eve of Russia’s World Cup, a decision was to be made on who will host the 2026 finals.
In the end it came down to two choices: The United Bid that brought the US, Mexico and Canada together. And the Morocco bid, a long shot that had a lot of support in FIFA. After the problems of corruption and vote swapping in 2010, this time the vote was opened up to every FIFA association rather than the now abolished 22-person Executive Committee.
Back in March, things didn’t look great for the United bid, largely thanks to US president Donald Trump denouncing the developing world as being full of “shit hole countries”. That, and the attempted ban on muslims entering the US, alienated many and it looked like Morocco, which had a far inferior bid, might win out. I wrote this story for the Bleacher Report about it. The United bid were very worried indeed.
In the end, the United bid won easily. But only after Trump intervened again, essentially threatening any country that voted against the bid. Political pressure was put on each association and, it later emerged the United bid had a series of letters from Trump promising, privately, to allow anyone into the country for the finals. Still, politics and sport don’t mix, right?
Last year I heard about an intriguing plan that had been hatched in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia had qualified for the World Cup. This isn’t that surprising. Until recently, the Saudi’s were the powerhouse of Asian football. The Saudi Pro League attracts big crowds and pays big wages. But there was always one big issue, one that is the same for almost all Gulf nations (with the recent exception of Qatar): Saudi players didn’t play in Europe.
OK, Saudi legend Sami al Jaber did play for Wolves very briefly in 2000 (he didn’t score a goal and Al Hilal terminated his loan agreement) … but still. A mixture of high wages, home comforts and a cultural suspicion of the west meant that some of Asia’s best players never moved to Europe’s best leagues.
That, it seems, was about to change. The Saudi federation announced that it was loaning out its World Cup squad ahead of Russia 2018 to give them the best possible chance. A deal was signed with La Liga and nine players were loaned to various first, second and third division sides in Spain.
It was a unique experiment. Not to mention a controversial one. So I went to Spain to meet some of the players, see how they were getting on, and write this story about it.
For the past few months I have been writing scripts for Tifo, a great new football website that has made a name for themselves by designing and publishing amazing YouTube videos illustrating tactics, owners and players, amongst other topics.
After my book The Billionaires Club was published I have been working on a videos which illuminate who the owners of some of the world’s biggest football clubs are, how they made their money and how they came to owning a football club in the first place.
This video tells the story of the Glazer family and their take over of Manchester United in 2005. It is an intriguing tale. Malcolm Glazer, the family’s late patriarch, was never really a sports fan but managed to first buy an NFL franchise (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and then purchased arguably the most popular football club in the world without putting much of his family’s own money in.
It is an intriguing tale involving politics, greed and, at the centre, a tug-of-love over a famous racehorse’s sperm. Really.
And if you want more of that kind of stuff, we recorded a podcast to talk all about…
After writing Thirty One Nil, the story of World Cup qualification told by the underdogs, I have found it quite hard not to keep following the minutiae of the Road to Russia 2018.
It was, again, a vast and colourful campaign across the globe full of intrigue, goals and political controversy. So, for Tifo, I helped put together three YouTube videos that told the story of qualification for the 2018 World Cup finals.
Part one covers qualification in Asia, Oceania and CONCACAF:
Part two covers the tough route teams have to take in Africa and South America:
Finally, part three focuses on qualification in Europe:
Being someone who loves a World Cup underdog (and goalkeepers of World Cup underdogs) there was no better story of qualification for Russia 2018 than that of Panama and Jaime Penedo.
Panama had never qualified for a World Cup finals before and Penedo had played for almost a decade, fearing it would never happen. And then, an unlikely series of results in the finals rounds of CONCACAF qualification saw Panama reach Russia 2018. Pandamonium followed on the streets of Panama City.