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

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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!

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.

New York Times: A 48 team World Cup

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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.

BBC World Service: Kosovo’s World Cup journey so far

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A fan with a Kosovo/Albania split flag before Switzerland played Albania in a 2014 World Cup qualification match ©James Montague

For the past few years I’ve been following the ups and downs of Kosovar football and the attempts by their football federation to gain recognition in FIFA and UEFA.

Since last year’s surprise recognition, the national team of Kosovo have embarked on qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Here’s a 15 minute radio documentary on the journey so far, from the first game against Finland, to their last against Turkey. Qualification begins again in March 2017.

 

 

Bleacher Report: Kosovo’s Rise

A FK Gjilani fan during the Gjilan Derby, October 2016. ©James Montague

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The Dawn of Kosovo’s Football Nation

Back in 2012 I met two men who seemed to be on an impossible mission. Fadil Vokrri and Eroll Salihu were, as they are today, the president and general secretary of the Football Federation of Kosovo.

We met in a roadside cafe outside Zurich. Switzerland was playing Albania in a 2014 World Cup qualification match. The majority of the players on show had Kosovar roots and the two men wanted the players to sign a petition calling for Kosovo to be allowed to play against other FIFA teams.

Up to then the Kosovo association, like the self-declared republic, was largely unrecognised by the world. So we snuck into the team hotel and met Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami, who all signed.

It seemed a long, long way away from happening. But in May this year Kosovo was recognised by FIFA and UEFA, just in time to join 2018 World Cup qualification. I met up again with Fadil and Eroll and went on the road for their first ever competitive game, against Finland in Turku.

It was a historic match that was reflective of the still sensitive political situation in the Balkans. I wrote this long read for The Bleacher Report about the build up to the game.

A month later I headed back to Kosovo as they prepared for their next two games, and travelled on the road with them to Poland. You can hear that story on the BBC World Service’s World Football show.