I’ve been writing for the New York Times for three years now and been lucky enough to travel to over 25 countries for them. And a couple of places, like Transnistria and Gibraltar, that think their countries but aren’t.
I started writing for them by accident. I was in Chingola, a tiny copper mining town in the north of Zambia. I’d managed to talk my way on to the Libyan national team’s flight from Tunisia to Zambia for their crunch African Cup of Nations qualification match.
It was an incredible story. Colonel Gaddafi was still free and the country had descended into civil war. Football had always been controlled by the Gaddafi family and, when the war started, the team’s captain pledged their allegiance to the brother leader.
But not everyone was happy. Several players were so disgusted by the regime they left the squad before a big game and went to fight on the front lines with the rebels against Gaddafi’s government forces. This match was their first time back in the team. Now they had a new kit, with a new badge and a new national anthem to sing.
Somehow the commission I had sorted out before I left London had fallen through as soon as I got to Zambia. But a mixture of Twitter, being in the right place at the right time and blind luck meant the NYT agreed to take a look at it on spec. I managed to file it thirty seconds before the internet went down in the entire town for 12 hours.
The game finished 0-0 and Libya qualified. I was in the dressing room with the team when the news came through that other results had gone their way. It was an incredible moment and I managed to capture it for the BBC World Service’s World Football show. Have a listen…
A few days later Gaddafi was found and lynched in the streets.
Here’s some links to other stories I’ve done for them.
Scottish Club Hamilton Academical Combines Soccer and Sobriety
November 4, 2014
HAMILTON, Scotland — Twelve miles outside of Glasgow, at the tiny New Douglas Park soccer stadium, Colin McGowan was talking about divine intervention.
KIEV, Ukraine — Plumes of thick black smoke and a rapid-fire echo of explosions rose into the afternoon sky.
Several hundred people from eastern Ukraine, almost all of them men in black T-shirts and balaclavas, were singing nationalistic songs as they threw smoke bombs onto the soccer field in front of them.
Icelandic Team With Flair for Festivities Will Meet Inter Milan
August 19, 2014
Until this month, Stjarnan F.C. was known mostly as a middling Icelandic soccer team with a talent for elaborate goal celebrations.
KIEV, Ukraine — Anatoliy Konkov’s dark wood desk is surrounded by three portraits.
The first is an awkward-looking picture of Konkov, the 64-year-old president of the Football Federation of Ukraine, shaking hands with FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter. The second is a photograph of Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, renovated for the 2012 European Championship, which Ukraine co-hosted with Poland.
The third, the closest at hand, rests atop a nearby cabinet. It is a gold-and-wood icon of the Virgin Mary, and it is the one he has been most drawn to in recent weeks.
Ramadan Poses Test to Muslim Players at World Cup
June 26, 2014
RIO DE JANEIRO — Down the quiet, tree-lined Rua Gonzaga Bastos, less than half a mile from Estádio do Maracanã, the custodian of this city’s only mosque was preparing for the busiest time of the year.
Mohamed Zeinhom Abdien, the custodian, was sitting at a desk opposite messy piles of boxes containing thousands of leaflets about Islam written in Portuguese, English and Arabic.
For Palestine, a Final May Be Just the Start
May 29, 2014
As an ambitious college student in Memphis, Omar Jarun dreamed of one day playing for the United States in the World Cup. But Jarun, a 6-foot-4 central defender who plays for the Ottawa Fury in the North American Soccer League, never made it onto the roster, and he is not headed to the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
A National Team Without a Country
May 21, 2014
GORINCHEM, the Netherlands — The 18 Eritrean refugees arrived in this picturesque, blue-collar Dutch city 20 miles east of Rotterdam earlier this month looking for safety, security and, finally, after 18 months of fear and uncertainty in two refugee camps on two continents, a home.
A Friendly Game for a Beatific State
May 11, 2014
ROME — Monsignor Ferrer stood up from his seat in the ramshackle bleachers at the Vatican’s sports complex here, cleared his throat and addressed the 22 players through a megaphone, 40 minutes later than planned.
Built on Brotherhood, Club Lives Up to Name
April 18, 2014
BUCHAREST — Aime Lema arrived first. It was earlier than Lema — the coach of A.S.F. Fratia Bucharest, a middle-of-the-pack team in the Romanian fifth division — would normally arrive for a game. But this day was different; it was his first day in charge.
Kosovo Gets a Real Game, if It Can Assemble a Team
February 20, 2014
After six years of rejection, cajoling, schmoozing, direct action and, finally, acceptance, Eroll Salihu is at last organizing a game that counts.
Pelé Backs Frenchman for FIFA Presidency
January 20, 2014
LONDON — When Jérôme Champagne announced Monday that he would run for the presidency of FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, few outside the world of soccer administration had heard his name before. But Champagne, a former diplomat and FIFA adviser, can count on the backing of someone with a much more recognized name: Pelé.
Europe’s Dominance Faces a Challenge in a FIFA Bid
January 19, 2014
ZURICH — Jérôme Champagne has spent most of his career in soccer behind the scenes, quietly operating in the shadows with little fanfare or credit. But on Monday, Champagne, a Frenchman who once served as FIFA’s deputy general secretary, is set to become front-page news in Switzerland and beyond.
In Glance at Groups, a Mix of Reactions
December 6, 2014
When Bosnia and Herzegovina was preparing for its first official international match 18 years ago, the war that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia had just ended, the fragile peace had just begun, and members of the national team had to buy their jerseys from a sports shop in Zagreb, Croatia. It was a game at Albania, held nine days after the Dayton peace agreement was signed. The team had only 11 players and no substitutes, and it lost, 2-0. But that did not matter.
Abrupt End to Player’s Misery in Qatar
November 29, 2013
Zahir Belounis’s Qatari ordeal ended not with a letter or a visa stamp or even with a visit from an official delivering news of his impending departure from the emirate. It ended with a phone call telling him to leave the country, and quickly.
Qatar Lets Soccer Player Leave After Two Years
November 27, 2013
Zahir Belounis, a French-Algerian soccer player who has been unable to leave Qatar for more than two years because of a contract dispute with his former club, and whose case shined a light on the emirate’s labor laws, has been told he can return home.
Rivals Unite in Jordan’s Surprising World Cup Run
November 12, 2013
AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan’s royal past, present and future look down on the grass field at Amman International Stadium from all angles. Below huge color portraits of King Abdullah II, his father, King Hussein, and his teenage son, the crown prince, the national soccer team’s players trained Tuesday ahead of the game of their lives: a World Cup intercontinental playoff against Uruguay, the South American champion, on Wednesday night.
FIFA Assigns Group to Study Winter Move for World Cup
October 4, 2013
ZURICH — Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, emerged Friday from two days of meetings to address serious questions about the 2022 World Cup with a concrete answer to one of them.
FIFA Official Urges Worker Protections
October 3, 2013
ZURICH — A vice president of FIFA on Thursday called for global soccer’s governing body to insist on minimum standards of worker protection on World Cup projects amid allegations of abuse that have troubled construction projects for the 2022 finals in Qatar.
ZURICH — The decision by FIFA’s executive committee three years ago to award the 2022 World Cup to the tiny, gas-rich emirate of Qatar was to many outsiders the perfect example of the secretive and insular way major decisions are made at the top levels of world soccer’s governing body.
In FIFA Politics, Blatter Is the Consummate Player
October 1, 2013 (with Sam Borden)
Sepp Blatter is not a king. He is not a chancellor or a viceroy and he is, most assuredly, not a congressman or people’s representative.
Cape Verde Disqualified From World Cup Playoffs
September 12, 2014
Cape Verde, a tiny group of islands off West Africa bidding to become the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup, was thrown out of the competition Thursday for fielding an ineligible player in a qualifying match last Saturday.
A World Cup Qualifier Is a Hostage to History
September 5, 2013
BUDAPEST — There are many ghosts that walk the streets of Hungary’s capital, but none is more alive than that of Ferenc Puskas
The name Puskas adorns street signs, a metro station and Hungary’s national stadium. A statue stands in Budapest’s third district, honoring the soccer player who from 1945 to 1956 scored 84 international goals in 85 matches.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior was having an unusually quiet first half when the ball was poked through to him on the left side of Spain’s penalty area.
A Soccer Win for Tahiti? A Goal Would Be Terrific
June 19, 2013
RIO DE JANEIRO — Eddy Etaeta has learned the art of how to lose gracefully.
Etaeta is the 43-year-old coach of Tahiti’s national soccer team, which is making its first appearance in an international tournament at the Confederations Cup this month in Brazil.
UEFA Makes Gibraltar a Full Member
May 24, 2013
LONDON — European soccer’s governing body voted Friday to include Gibraltar, a British territory on the tip of Spain’s Iberian Peninsula, as its 54th member, clearing the way for its teams to compete in the European championships and the Champions League.
Gibraltar Moves Closer to Soccer Independence
May 22, 2013
GIBRALTAR — The United States and the Soviet Union boycotted each other’s Olympics during the cold war. The United Nations used sports to take a stand against South Africa during apartheid. The latest flash point of sports and international politics: Gibraltar, the tiny tip of the Iberian Peninsula that for centuries has endured as a tug of war between Spain and Britain.
Amid ‘Kill’ Chants, Croatia and Serbia Set Peaceful Example
March 22, 2013
ZAGREB, Croatia — For all the talk of conciliation, for all the pleas for tolerance before the game and for all the statements from players and coaches that the war should take a back seat to the soccer, the crowd at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb found it harder to forget and forgive on Friday.
Seeking 90 Minutes of Peace for Two Teams and Their Fans
March 22, 2013
ZAGREB, Croatia — The visiting team’s fans have been barred from attending the World Cup qualifying match Friday between host Croatia and Serbia, a security measure the sport’s officials deemed necessary for the first soccer game between the countries since the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia. The match at Maksimir Stadium has long been feared as a potential flash point for fans with nationalist fervor and vivid memories of the ethnic clashes that brought war to the region in the 1990s.
Symbol of a Struggle
February 6, 2013
MIERCUREA CIUC, Romania — A city of 38,000 on a plateau in eastern Transylvania, Miercurea Ciuc is famous for three things: its status as one of Romania’s coldest places; its brewery, where the country’s Ciuc beer is produced; and its ice hockey team, which has won the last six Romanian league championships.
CAIRO — It took only 12 minutes for Al Ahly to score the Egyptian soccer league’s first goal in 366 long and bloody days.
The Mauritian striker Dominique Da Silva fired an unstoppable shot from 20 yards Saturday, peeled off his jersey and revealed a black T-shirt. On it was written, “Will never forget you.”
In Wake of Deadly Riot, Egyptian Team Plays On
December 19, 2012
NAGOYA, Japan — Ahmed Fathi, a defensive midfielder, ran for his life when he saw thousands of Egyptian opposition supporters streaming toward him on the field. His team, Al Ahly of Cairo, had just lost a local league game in February to Al Masry in the city of Port Said.
In Belgium, an Old Quarrel Gets a New Slant
November 20, 2012
BRUSSELS — In opposite corners of the press room, deep inside King Baudouin Stadium, two packs of journalists crowded around their subjects.
It was Oct. 15, the day before Belgium played Scotland in a 2014 World Cup qualifier, and two of the national soccer team’s brightest stars were being mobbed.
Rooting for Home, if Not Yet a Home Team
September 19, 2012
LUCERNE, Switzerland — Xherdan Shaqiri walked onto the field with a white cross against his heart and three flags embossed on his shoes.
A promising 20-year-old midfielder for the German powerhouse Bayern Munich, Shaqiri lined up in the middle of the field alongside his Swiss teammates for a World Cup qualifying match against Albania. The national anthems were played, but Shaqiri did not sing the Swiss anthem.
TIRASPOL, Moldova — It is a soccer club that few have heard of, from a corner of the former Soviet empire even fewer could easily locate: F.C. Sheriff Tiraspol, champions of Transnistria. The club was started by a former K.G.B. agent, and it plays in a place where smuggling is rampant and statues of Lenin still stand revered.
Antigua, Tiny U.S. Foe With Big Aspirations
June 7, 2012
BRADENTON, Fla. — On the banks of a lake at the IMG Academies here, two members of the Antigua and Barbuda national soccer team were arguing over whose turn it was to hold the fishing rod.
Behind the star striker Peter Byers and goalkeeper Olson Forde, a cluster of bluegill were flapping in a bowl, gasping their last breaths.
Out of Dark, Onto Field
June 3, 2012
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Bob Bradley stood at attention as a full military band played the anthem of his adoptive country. In front of him, Egypt’s national soccer team, which he began managing about nine months ago, was lined up on the field at the 80,000-capacity Borg el Arab military stadium, the players singing proudly.
In England, Fighting for Promotion and Riches
May 18, 2012
LONDON — On Saturday, in front of 90,000 people crowded into a cathedral of the sport, one of the richest single games in any sport anywhere will take place.
It is a soccer match that will feature two passionately supported clubs steeped in tradition. And for the victor the reward will be huge: perhaps $150 million, or more.
The loser, meanwhile, will get nothing but heartbreak — and that day’s gate receipts.
AMMAN, Jordan — King Abdullah International stadium was nearly empty. Syria’s soccer team, forced to play its home matches on foreign soil after an uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, had about 20 supporters in attendance for an Olympic qualifying match against Malaysia on Wednesday.
For Lebanon, Defeat on the Day, but a Larger Victory
February 29, 2012
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Even in defeat, Lebanon’s national soccer team could celebrate a major victory.
Lebanon lost, 4-2, to the United Arab Emirates at the Al Wahda stadium on Wednesday — despite the full-throated support of thousands of Lebanese fans who had traveled to the World Cup qualifying match. But Lebanon nonetheless advanced to the final stage of qualification in the Asia region for the first time by virtue of South Korea’s 2-0 victory over Kuwait in Seoul.
National Team Helps Bring Lebanon Together
February 28, 2012
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Theo Bücker sat in a plush suite overlooking Martyrs Square, listening to a song written in honor of his team’s recent successes.
Bücker, 60, the German coach of Lebanon’s national soccer team, nodded politely, if a little awkwardly, as the aspiring female singer explained why she felt compelled to arrive at his suite with a MacBook laptop computer under her arm and play him a song she had written about a sport she had barely paid attention to until recently.
January 28, 2012
KIRYAT SHMONA, Israel — This city is one of Israel’s smallest, a hardscrabble place with a population of 23,000 that is less than two miles from the Lebanese border and through the decades has repeatedly found itself caught in the crossfire of Arab-Israeli strife.
In 1974, Kiryat Shmona was the scene of a terrorist attack in which 18 Israelis, many of them children, were killed. Rockets have clobbered the town during cross-border fighting. Underground shelters are as familiar to the city as traffic lights. And jobs can be scarce.
A First in Cup Qualifying for a Player and a Team
November 25, 2011
APIA, Samoa — Jonny Saelua did not always envision herself as an international soccer player. What she really wanted to do was join a dance company and “travel the world just performing.”
“Anything modern, jazz, maybe a little bit of ballet,” said Saelua, a center back for American Samoa’s men’s team and a performing arts major at the University of Hawaii. But for now, Saelua is doing her dancing in cleats. On Tuesday, the 23-year-old Saelua played a key role in American Samoa’s 2-1 victory against Tonga in a 2014 World Cup qualifier.
For American Samoa, a Win Ignites a World Cup Dream
November 23, 2012
APIA, Samoa — American Samoa had played 30 men’s soccer matches since starting international play in 1994. It had lost all 30, by a combined score of 229-12, and was tied for last in the FIFA world rankings.
On Tuesday, the tiny, unincorporated island territory in the South Pacific finally broke through, defeating Tonga, 2-1, in a prequalifying match for the 2014 World Cup.
Eritrean National Team Heads Home Intact
November 17, 2011
KIGALI, Rwanda — The Eritrea national soccer team might have been knocked out of 2014 World Cup qualification after its 3-1 defeat to Rwanda in Kigali on Tuesday, but the team’s management scored a small victory of sorts.
In Eritrea, Soccer is a Way Out
November 14, 2011
KIGALI, Rwanda — In the fading light and steady rain at Amahoro Stadium, the Eritrea national soccer team trained in silence Monday as it prepared for one of its most important matches since securing independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
The team, known as the Red Sea Boys and ranked 190th by FIFA, will face Rwanda on Tuesday in the second leg of their 2014 World Cup preliminary qualifier. If Eritrea wins, it will advance to the second round, a group stage.
Split by War, Libya’s Team Is United by New Goal
October 7, 2011
CHINGOLA, Zambia — When violent protests erupted in Libya in February, some members of the national soccer team supported Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime, including the captain at the time, Tariq Tayib, who called the rebels rats and dogs. Others chose to take up arms.
Walid el Kahatroushi, a 27-year-old midfielder, was one of three players who left the team and joined the rebels.