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

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 13.26.02
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:

 

Tifo: Interview with Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 13.10.37
Panama national goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Illustration ©Philippe Fenner for Tifo.

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.

Penedo now plays his football for Dinamo Bucharest in Romania. I caught up with him one weekend and interviewed him about this incredible achievement for Tifo, which you can read here.

You can also hear more of that interview on the BBC World Service’s World Football. Also on that show you can hear my story about the wildest league in European football right now: the Romanian fourth division. Really!