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 Glazers & Manchester United

 

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 11.18.32
Sir Alex Ferguson. Illustration © @LWIMTH

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…

Tifo: Meet the Owners

Kroenke-2
Arsenal FC majority shareholder Stan Kroenke ©Philippe Fenner.

Since the release of The Billionaires Club I have been working with Tifo, a new website that does amazing illustrated YouTube videos that tell stories about football. One series of videos we worked on was “Meet The Owners”: Stories from The Billionaires Club that lift the lid on who these mysterious owners are, how they got their money and what they want with your football club.

There are seven in total, covering Manchester City, Arsenal, West Ham United, Southampton and many more.

 

You can find all seven, and counting, videos here.

MEE: How Bangladesh Sold Its Future to the Gulf States

IMG_20160415_160755865
Armed guards outside a newspaper office in Dhaka, Bangladesh. ©James Montague

In August 2017 my third book “The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-Rich Owners” (Bloomsbury) was released. The book took me all over the world looking at the backstories of the super-rich who were now investing in football clubs: China, the UAE, Qatar and, most surprisingly, Bangladesh.

Whilst football is growing in this cricket-mad country, there hasn’t been any investment as such from Bangladeshi billionaires in European football. But the country plays an important part in that story.

There is little doubt that the wealth of the Middle East is reshaping the game. Whilst that wealth is derived mainly from oil and gas, it is the millions of poorly paid migrant workers who build these autocracies on the shores of Persian Gulf. Most come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Much has been written about the kafala system of sponsorship in relation to the building projects for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar. Kafala has been described by Human Rights Watch as a form of “indentured servitude” and it is Bangladeshi workers that tend to be the worst paid and worst treated. And not just in Qatar. The UAE too has an appalling record on worker and human rights. This is especially relevant given that Manchester City is owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family and, effectively, by the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Mansour, the club’s owner, is one of the most powerful political figures in the country and many of the club’s board members are also deeply involved in an economy dependent on the kafala system.

So I wanted to explain how a worker comes to leave Bangladesh and arrive in the Middle East. Why do they leave? What happens on the way? And how are they treated when they get there? What I saw in Bangladesh was a broken system where some of the poorest people in the world are exploited on every step of the way by agents, employers and, in the end, whole countries.

An extract of my chapter was published by Middle East Eye and can be read here.

You can buy The Billionaires Club (UK) in hardback, ebook or auido book here.

For the rest of the world you can buy The Billionaires Club here.