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.
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.
Whilst I was writing my first book, When Friday Comes, I spent quite a bit of time passing through Israel and soon understood that Israeli football was a pretty good mirror on Israeli society. One of the most fascinating clubs is Beitar Jerusalem, a club steeped in ultra nationalism. An Arab had never played for the team and when it was suggested that one did, the fans rioted, especially its ultra group, La Familia.
Equally as fraught was the club’s ownership. For a while the club was owned by Arkadi Gaydamak, a Russian born Israeli citizen who made his fortune in France but who was wanted on an international arrest warrant for alleged gun running during the Angolan civil war. He bought the club, in his own words, for propaganda purposes and hoped to launch a political career. He came third in the Jerusalem mayoral elections and lost interest in the club for a while.
(In the end, he was sent to jail in France, but the gun running charges were dropped.)
Enter Guma Aguiar, a playboy millionaire from Brazil, raised in the US who had made a fortune thanks to the discovery of a natural gas field. He subsequently sunk millions in to Jerusalem, its basketball team and Beitar.
But then the wheels fell off. He was sectioned, embroiled in a vicious court case and then, eventually vanished, presumed dead. Or was he?
Back in 2015 I tried to track down a man who had become infamous for one of the most memorable moments in European Championship qualification history. During a qualification match between Albania and Serbia in Belgrade – two countries with a long history of antipathy, to say the least – a drone was flown in to the Partizan Stadium covered in Albanian nationalist symbols.
It sparked a riot, the match was abandoned and the Albanian dressing room was searched. The Albanian prime minister’s brother was briefly held too. But the culprit was someone much more unexpected.
Ismail Morina, a young crane operator living in Italy, had planned the whole operation, an operation that would seem to have had almost a zero chance of success normally. But, somehow, the planets aligned for Morina and he managed to escape.
I ended up making a film with Copa90 about that trip….
But that was just the start of the story. I tracked him down to Kosovo before Serbia was due to travel to Albania for the return leg. I spent a few days with him, before it all went crazy. He was later arrested before the game setting off a chain of events that would have seemed comic if they hadn’t been so serious.
I’ve been following Israeli football for a few years now. The league is a fascinating reflection of its society, which is far more complex than many think. Last month I went to the Negev desert to do a story for The New York Times about the current champions Hapoel Be’ersheva.
Be’ersheva is an ancient city, with a mixed population of jews, muslims and bedouin. It’s largely been on the periphery of Israeli society and has been seen as a poor cousin to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But not any more.
The team and the city’s fortunes changed when the club was bought by Alona Barkat ten years ago. She’s a wealthy philanthropist and also the only woman to own a football team in Israel. The club’s renaissance has matched the city’s, which is now the fastest growing in the country.
The team are on the verge of their fourth title and play Besiktas in the Europa League Last 32. They lost last night in Be’ersheva, 3-1. But they will play a return leg in Istanbul next week. Which will be tense.
It is probably quite obvious by now that I often write about football teams who don’t win very many matches. Thirty One Nil covered 2014 World Cup qualification from the perspective of the national teams who will likely never qualify for a finals.
So the up and coming reform of the World Cup, an expansion to 48 teams, has started an interesting debate about the minnows in world football. Does the expansion help smaller nations to dream big, as expansion of the European Championships did? Or is it anti-meritocratic, giving away places in the finals to teams who do not deserve a place? Or does the expansion effectively ruin the drama and intrigue of qualification?
I revisited some of the people I met on my journey around the world writing Thirty One Nil as well as others, including the president of the Bhutan football federation (whose national team played, and won, its first ever World Cup qualification match in March 2015), and asked them.