Bleacher Report: Inside Iranian football

Outside the Azadi Stadium, Tehran ©James Montague

Back in February, I thought months of hard work had come to nothing.

Since last year I had been trying to get a reporting visa into Iran. Team Meli had easily qualified for the World Cup and were, to my mind at least, the best team in Asia. But as ever with Iran, who qualified with ease, football only told half the story.

For the last few games of qualification the real world had impinged on the party. After Iran had qualified, at a reception with President Rouhani, the team’s captain Masoud Shojaei asked him to lift the ban on women entering Iran’s football stadiums. A few months later he was dropped from the team after an outcry by conservative law makers when he played for his Greek team Panionios in a Europa League match against Maccabi Tel Aviv. Iran maintains an unofficial ban against any Iranian sportsmen or women competing against Israelis. In the middle of all this was the team’s combative coach Carlos Queiroz.

So, I wanted to write more about what was going on in Iran, by first going to the Tehran Derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal, one of the biggest matches in world football. But with no visa, that seemed impossible. And then, on the morning I was supposed to leave, my visa suddenly arrived. A few hours later I was in Tehran at the beginning of a four month journey that took me to Iran, Greece, Austria and, ultimately, to St Petersburg for Iran’s first game of the 2018 World Cup finals.

The result was this long read for the Bleacher Report. It gives a little background to Iran’s amazing campaign, but also to some of the forces that underpin Iranian society, and the people who are bravely trying to fight against them.

B/R: Could the US lose 2026?

San Marino
The president of the San Marino federation keeps a miniature statue of the World Cup on his desk. San Marino voted for the US-lead United bid.

It seems like only yesterday Sepp Blatter announced on stage in Zurich that Russia and Qatar would be hosting the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals. In a way, we are still dealing with the fall out from both those decisions. So, on the eve of Russia’s World Cup, a decision was to be made on who will host the 2026 finals.

In the end it came down to two choices: The United Bid that brought the US, Mexico and Canada together. And the Morocco bid, a long shot that had a lot of support in FIFA. After the problems of corruption and vote swapping in 2010, this time the vote was opened up to every FIFA association rather than the now abolished 22-person Executive Committee.

Back in March, things didn’t look great for the United bid, largely thanks to US president Donald Trump denouncing the developing world as being full of “shit hole countries”. That, and the attempted ban on muslims entering the US, alienated many and it looked like Morocco, which had a far inferior bid, might win out. I wrote this story for the Bleacher Report about it. The United bid were very worried indeed.

In the end, the United bid won easily. But only after Trump intervened again, essentially threatening any country that voted against the bid. Political pressure was put on each association and, it later emerged the United bid had a series of letters from Trump promising, privately, to allow anyone into the country for the finals. Still, politics and sport don’t mix, right?

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.

New Book: The Billionaires Club

Billionaires Club.jpg

For the past few years I’ve been working on a new book, which is out now.

The Billionaires Club is about the one per cent; the super-rich, the billionaire class who now control football.

Once upon a time football was run by modest local businessmen. Today it is the plaything of billionaire oligarchs, staggeringly wealthy from oil and gas, from royalty, or from murkier sources. But who are these new masters of the universe? Where did all their money come from? And what do they want with our beautiful game?

While almost cloaked in secrecy, the billionaire owner has to raise his head above the bunker when it comes to football ownership – a rare Achilles heel that allows access to worlds normally off limits journalists and outsiders.

I criss-crosses the world – from Dhaka to Doha, from China to Crewe, from St Louis to London, from Bangkok to Belgium – to profile this new elite, their network of money and their influence that defies geographic boundaries.

The Billionaires Club is part history of club ownership, part in-depth investigation into the money and influence that connects the super-rich around the globe, and part travel book as I follow the ever-shifting trail around the globe in an attempt to reveal the real force behind modern-day football.

At its heart The Billionaires Club is a football book, about some of the biggest clubs in the world. But it is also about something bigger: the world around us, the global economy, where the world is headed and how football has become an essential cog in this machine.

The book is out now in the UK, and will released in Australia early September and the US October 24th.

In the meantime I’ve been putting together some YouTube animations with uMAXit Football called “Meet The Billionaires”. First up: Stan Kroenke at Arsenal FC.


BBC Sport: Serbia’s migrant cricketers

Serbia Cricket
Afghan and Pakistani migrants watch a tape cricket tournament in the Obrenovac refugee camp, outside Serbia’s capital Belgrade. ©James Montague

Last month I did my first cricket story. But as with most stories, it wasn’t so much about the sport but the incredible stories of the people who play them.

A few years ago Serbia was at the heart of the refugee crisis that saw thousands pass through here, trying to reach Western Europe. Few had any intentions of staying in Serbia, they were merely passing until they could cross the border with Hungary near the city of Subotica, which had no fence or border guards to stop them.

But the Western Balkan route is now effectively closed. Fences have been erected in Croatia and Hungary.  It is virtually impossible to cross now. One unintended consequence is that thousands of people are now trapped in Serbia; unable to go to Western Europe, but too broke or scared to go home. Most are Afghans, some Pakistanis from its restive and dangerous tribal areas.

They mainly live in three major refugee camps and to pass the time they play the national sport: cricket. Enter the Serbian Cricket Federation and its general secretary Vladimir Ninkovic who goes into the camps to give these young men and unaccompanied children something they crave: organised cricket matches with kit and an umpire.

I followed Vladimir as he went from camp to camp, doing more good work than I think he realised.

I made this for the BBC World Service’s Stumped! programme. You can listen to some of the refugees’ incredible stories, and how cricket is helping them come to terms with their new lives.

But I also wrote a lengthier piece for the BBC Sport’s website about finding cricket thriving in a country where no one knows the rules.

Apart from Vlad and his teammates, of course…

New York Times: Two Steaua Bucharests

Gigi Becali
Steaua Bucharest owner Gigi Becali in his Bucharest palace ©James Montague

There is arguably no more controversial owner in world football than Steaua Bucharest owner Gigi Becali. It would be hard to list all of the Romanian businessman’s infractions.

He has been in jail for corruption, has run for president, derided women and gay people and has left behind a long trail of enemies. But his biggest battle may be in front of him.

Becali has funded Steaua for the best part of the last decade. It was once the army’s team and a few years ago the army made a play to seize the club back from Becali. What has followed is a tug of war over who owns Steaua, its name and its history.

Now there are two Steauas, one which the army owns and will play in Romania’s 4th Division. And Becali’s Steaua, who have changed their name to FC FCSB.

I went to Bucharest for the New York Times and sat down with Becali and met the army general who believes he is now in charge of the true Steaua Bucharest. You can read the feature here…

You can hear more of that interview on the BBC World Service’s World Football show, here…

BBC World Service: Miodrag’s story


Here’s a question for you: who was the first player to win the European Cup with two different teams? Well, that player was Miodrag Belodedici, a cultured midfielder who won the title with Steaua Bucharest in 1986. Here is the amazing penalty shoot out, where Steaua’s Helmuth Duckadam saved all four of Barcelona’s penalties.

He repeated the feat in 1991, with Red Star Belgrade, when they won on penalties against Marseille. This time Belodedici scored in the shootout.

But that only tells half the story. Belodedici was brought up in Socol, on the Romanian/Yugoslav border. In the 70s and 80s this was the bloodiest border in Europe. He would grow up with the sounds of gunshots as border guards would kill those trying desperately to cross the Danube to escape Ceausescu’s murderous police state.

Yet he played for Steaua, the army team, before fleeing the country and being charged with treason. He fled to Serbia and turned up at Red Star Belgrade, before returning home after Romania’s 1989 revolution and Ceausescu’s Christmas Day execution.

I went to Romania to speak to Belodedici about his amazing life for the BBC World Service’s World Football show. You can hear my interview with him, and more about his amazing story, here….

I also recently wrote a long read feature on Belodedici for The Blizzard, which you can read here.