Bleacher Report: Inside North Korea

 

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.

You can read my story “Inside the Secret World of Football in North Korea” for the Bleacher Report here.

New York Times: The Saudis moving to La Liga

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. 

You can also hear a bit more about this on the BBC World Service’s World Football podcast.

Tifo: The Story of World Cup qualification

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World Cup qualification in Europe. Illustration ©Philippe Fenner for Tifo.

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: