Bleacher Report: Football’s Green Line

 

 

At the start of 2017 I returned to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank to write a three part feature on football in the Holy Land. It is a region I know well from writing When Friday Comes. Much has changed since then, and in other ways nothing has changed at all.

I started in Tel Aviv, where I met Israel’s Liverpool Supporters Club.

1 Tel Aviv LFC Supporters club
Israel’s Liverpool Supporters Club ©James Montague

You can read part one of Football in the Holy Land here.

From there I travelled to the Green Line, which nominally separates Israel from the what the Palestinians hope will be their future state. The Palestine FA is currently battling FIFA over the issue of settlement football clubs; six teams from Israel’s lower leagues playing in territory that under international law is considered Palestinian (although Israel disputes this).

8 Settler Club training
Beitar Givat Ze’ev training ©James Montague

You can read part two of Football in the Holy Land: The Green Line, here.

Finally, I crossed in to the Gaza Strip, which is under blockade by Israel and Egypt. There I spent a weekend watching the Gazan league, where I met a talented young striker, trapped in politics and bureaucracy.

24 Gaza Rafah prayer before the match
Players, supporters and officials pray before a match in Rafah, Gaza ©James Montague

You can read the third part of Football in the Holy Land: The Superstar Locked in Gaza, here.

 

 

Delayed Gratification: Trouble in Trepca

Trepca
Ramadan Gjoshaj, one of the miners who went on strike in 1989, still works down the Trepca mine today ©James Hill

In October 2016 I went to the divided northern Kosovar city of Mitrovica to do a story about Trepca, a football team that had once competed in the Yugoslav First Division but who, since the war, had split into two teams: KF Trepca in the ethnically Albanian south, and FK Trepca in the Serbian north. The two share the same colours and crest. But the teams got their name and identity (and the city got its wealth) from the Trepca mines; a sprawling complex of tunnels that once employed 25,000 people.

Today the mine, which was once the scene of a strike that crippled the Yugoslav economy and was the point of no return for many of the country’s constituent republics looking for greater autonomy from Belgrade, is a shadow of its former self. Serbia claims that it has the right to some of the mineral wealth. The government in Pristina has nationalised it, claiming that the wealth is theirs.

I went down the Trepca mine with James Hill (who took some amazing photographs) to discover that many of the issues that led to war still rankle, and that Mitrovica is just as divided below ground as it is above it.

You can read my story for Delayed Gratification, about the Trepca mine and how it has become a key issue in Serb/Kosovar relations, here.

The Blizzard: The Agony Of Doha

Blizzard

Much has been written about Qatar, its rise as a Middle East superpower, its huge wealth and, of course, the fact that it will controversially host the 2022 World Cup. But back in 1993 the emirate was a very different place.

Back then, Qatar hosted one of the most politically explosive football tournaments ever held: the final round of Asian World Cup qualification for USA ’94. Amongst the teams competing over the ten day tournament was North and South Korea, Iran and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Japan.

North Korea, Iraq and Iran were all under US sanctions and it was unclear if any of the teams would be allowed to compete if they qualified. The US State Department sent an official along and then FIFA general secretary Sepp Blatter sent a special group of top European referees to keep order.

But the tournament was best known for its incredible conclusion, that would plunge Japan into despair, and send South Korea to the finals thanks to the last kick of the final match.

I pieced together the story of the Agony of Doha for The Blizzard, which you can read here. 

The Blizzard: Jerusalem Syndrome

beitar fans
Beitar Jerusalem fans at the Teddy Stadium, 2011 ©James Montague

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?

I wrote about the story of Guma Aguiar for The Blizzard, which you can read here.

Since I wrote the story there has been an update. Aguiar was declared dead in both Israel and Florida. But his body has never been found.

 

 

The Blizzard: Standard Bearer

Morina and the Red and Black at a war grave in Kosovo
Ismail Morina, visiting a KLA war grave in Kosovo before Albania v Serbia, October 2015 ©James Montague

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 wrote about the whole experience ahead of Euro 2016, which The Blizzard has now put online. You can read the full story here.

New York Times: An Israeli team blooms in the desert

beersheva-crowd
Hapoel Be’ersheva’s famous ultras at the club’s Turner Stadium. © Dan Balilty for The New York Times

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.

I visited Be’ersheva and spoke to fans, players, and Alona — the Queen of Be’ersheva — for this New York Time’s profile of the club and its remarkable story.

You can also hear my report from Be’ersheva for the BBC World Service’s World Football show.

 

 

New York Times: A 48 team World Cup

22 Bhutan's winning goal
Bhutan making it to the next round of 2018 World Cup qualification. ©James Montague

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.

The result was this piece for the New York Times, featuring Bob Bradley and Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic.