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.

Tifo: Meet the Owners

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Arsenal FC majority shareholder Stan Kroenke ©Philippe Fenner.

Since the release of The Billionaires Club I have been working with Tifo, a new website that does amazing illustrated YouTube videos that tell stories about football. One series of videos we worked on was “Meet The Owners”: Stories from The Billionaires Club that lift the lid on who these mysterious owners are, how they got their money and what they want with your football club.

There are seven in total, covering Manchester City, Arsenal, West Ham United, Southampton and many more.

 

You can find all seven, and counting, videos here.

MEE: How Bangladesh Sold Its Future to the Gulf States

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Armed guards outside a newspaper office in Dhaka, Bangladesh. ©James Montague

In August 2017 my third book “The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-Rich Owners” (Bloomsbury) was released. The book took me all over the world looking at the backstories of the super-rich who were now investing in football clubs: China, the UAE, Qatar and, most surprisingly, Bangladesh.

Whilst football is growing in this cricket-mad country, there hasn’t been any investment as such from Bangladeshi billionaires in European football. But the country plays an important part in that story.

There is little doubt that the wealth of the Middle East is reshaping the game. Whilst that wealth is derived mainly from oil and gas, it is the millions of poorly paid migrant workers who build these autocracies on the shores of Persian Gulf. Most come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Much has been written about the kafala system of sponsorship in relation to the building projects for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar. Kafala has been described by Human Rights Watch as a form of “indentured servitude” and it is Bangladeshi workers that tend to be the worst paid and worst treated. And not just in Qatar. The UAE too has an appalling record on worker and human rights. This is especially relevant given that Manchester City is owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family and, effectively, by the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Mansour, the club’s owner, is one of the most powerful political figures in the country and many of the club’s board members are also deeply involved in an economy dependent on the kafala system.

So I wanted to explain how a worker comes to leave Bangladesh and arrive in the Middle East. Why do they leave? What happens on the way? And how are they treated when they get there? What I saw in Bangladesh was a broken system where some of the poorest people in the world are exploited on every step of the way by agents, employers and, in the end, whole countries.

An extract of my chapter was published by Middle East Eye and can be read here.

You can buy The Billionaires Club (UK) in hardback, ebook or auido book here.

For the rest of the world you can buy The Billionaires Club here.

New Book: The Billionaires Club

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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

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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

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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…