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 Glazers & Manchester United

 

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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: 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:

 

Tifo: Interview with Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo

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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!

NYT: Qatar Has a World Cup Date. It Still Needs a World-Class Team

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Young fans of Qatar team Al Gharafa wait for the players to come out after their game in Doha. ©Olya Morvan

Much has been written about Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. A lot of it doesn’t reflect very well on Qatar or, indeed, FIFA. Worker rights, alleged corruption and the unequal use of resources have so far dominated the conversation. But what about the actual football team?

Qatar has never qualified for a World Cup before. 2022 will be its first. The country has vast resources and has invested heavily in the Aspire academy to raise a team that can compete in 2022.

I went to Doha for the New York Times to find out about Qatari football culture, something that hasn’t been written about much. I spoke to Xavi Hernandez who is playing his last season, in Qatar. You can read my New York Times story here. 

I also put together a radio story for the BBC World Service’s World Football show, which you can hear here. 

Finally, one of the most interesting characters I met was Bora Milutinovic, who has been to five World Cup finals with five different teams. You can read a longer interview with him, published by Tifo, here.

MEE: Syria’s World Cup story, Brutal politics behind the beautiful game

A Syrian international warms up before a game in Jordan in 2012.
The Syria under 23 team train before a match in Amman, Jordan. ©James Montague.

World Cup qualification always throws up an underdog story or two, and the Road to Russia 2018 was no different. But perhaps the most complex story was the Syrian national team’s incredible campaign.

This was a country crippled by war and exiled from home who, nevertheless, managed to reach the Asian play-off stage against Australia before being knocked out in extra time.

By any definition, this was an incredible achievement. Yet this wasn’t a typical underdog story. For those that wanted to see the removal of Syria’s president Bashar al Assad the team had come to represent the regime. Many players felt they could not represent the national team whilst he was still in power. Yet, as the rebel forces in the civil war crumbled, many Syrians – Assad including – had held up the national team as a symbol of unity rather than division.

It was a complex tale, and I wrote about it for Middle East Eye, which you can read here. 

I also wrote this longer piece on Syrian football and the civil war for World Soccer magazine back in 2015.