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…

Kosovo’s Long Road Towards Recognition

Football Federation Kosovo
An Albania fan wears an FFK jacket before Switzerland played Albanian in a 2014 World Cup qualification match. ©James Montague

Back in 2012 I met two Kosovan men in a diner on the outskirts of Zurich. The two men were well known in Pristina. In fact one of them, Fadil Vokrii, was particularly famous. He was the only Kosovar player to ever represent the Yugoslav national team and was considered the best player ever to come from Kosovo. He was now the president of the Football Federation Kosovo [FFK] and was sitting at this small diner with Erol Salihu, another former player who was his general secretary.

The two men were on a mission. They wanted recognition for Kosovo at both UEFA and FIFA. But this wasn’t going to happen. Russia and Serbia were opposed to any such move and they had got nowhere in recent years. But around a dozen Kosovar players DID play international football, usually for countries their parents had fled to during the war. Finland, Albania, Belgium and, of course Switzerland.

Albania and Switzerland were playing each other in a 2014 World Cup qualifier, and over half of those players had Kosovar roots. Fadil and Erol were in town to meet those players and get a signature from them for a petition, asking that Kosovo be given the right to play international football.

So the three of us, Erol, Fadil and I, snuck into the Swiss hotel and met Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami, amongst others. Who all signed the petition. I wrote about the encounter in my book Thirty One Nil, but I thought again of that day when Kosovo was recently admitted into both UEFA and FIFA.

Back in 2012, membership seemed far, far away. And yet Kosovo is now likely to be included in qualification for Russia 2018, a country that does not recognise it.

There are still some barriers. Serbia, understandably given that they see Kosovo as a historic part of their own territory, is livid and will be taking the decision to CAS. Then there is the issue of who plays for Kosovo? Will Swiss and Albanian players be allowed to switch nationality, for instance?

Over the past few days I tried to answer a few of these questions. Here’s a BBC World Service report for the World Football show where I revisit that meeting in a diner in 2012. 

And here are two New York Times pieces, one on Kosovo and the other detailing FIFA’s other new member, one no less controversial: Gibraltar.

 

 

 

 

 

NY Times: Ou est Bob Bradley?

Anyone who has read Thirty One Nil (or When For Friday comes for that matter) will know that the former US men’s national team coach Bob Bradley and I have crossed paths several times.

After being fired from the US job he went on to coach the Egyptian national team during the aftermath of the January 25 revolution.

From there he ended up in Norway coaching Stabæk, a tiny team who were expected to be relegated. Still, Bradley was the first American to coach a team in one of Europe’s top divisions. In his second season they finished third and qualified for the qualification rounds of the Europa League.

Still, Bradley moved on again, this time to Le Havre, France’s oldest club, in Ligue 2. The big job he so craves has eluded him, but I went to the French port city to discover that his ambition and drive remain undiminished.

Here’s a profile I wrote for the New York Times about his time in France.

There is also this radio report for the BBC World Service. Listen out for the some of the chants by Le Havre’s ultras, The Barbarians.

The club has British roots and if you listen closely you can hear God Save the Queen. With an important difference…

 

 

 

 

BBC World Service: The Dragons on top of the world

Happy New Year!

2015 was full of some pretty bad news when it came to football, indeed, sports governance in general. But just as FIFA was beginning to implode under the weight of accusation, qualification for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia began in Asia, just eight months after Germany’s World Cup triumph in Rio.

The twelve worst ranked teams were drawn into six, two legged matches. Clearly the pick of the round (at least, the pick for someone who has written a book about international underdogs) was Sri Lanka v Bhutan.

I had briefly considered trying to get to see Timor Leste v Mongolia, given that it was both one of the most unusual ties in world football and the fact that it would technically be the first to kick off.

But instead I headed off to Sri Lanka, and then to the isolated and little known mountain kingdom of Bhutan, for what turned out to be some of the most memorable matches I’d ever seen.

Bhutan were ranked dead last by FIFA and were playing their first ever World Cup match. This was a country that once held the world record for the biggest ever defeat (20-0, v Kuwait) until Australia beat American Samoa 31-0 in 2001. This was also a country that had a policy of isolationism that saw TV banned until the late 1990s.

It was a pretty special few weeks, and I recorded the trip for the BBC World Service’s World Football show.

You can listen to the 20 minute New Year special here.

New York Times: Qatar’s Strange English Adventure

The Qatar teamHarold with his programsSplit scarvesAll photos © James Montague

To Crewe, in the north of England, for a very strange match. As FIFA was in the midst of a meltdown, questions were again asked about Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup finals. But just as the media was focused on the arrested of FIFA executives in Zurich, the Qatar national team were in England, on their first ever tour in the United Kingdom. They had two friendly matches planned: one against Northern Ireland in Crewe and a second against Scotland in Edinburgh.

The Qatar team had been fairly secretive and not given any interviews or indication that they wanted anyone to know about the game. The town of Crewe seemed to be equally as perplexed. But I wrote this story for the New York Times about the game, the team (which is made up largely of naturalized players from Africa) and the fans who turned up to protest against the treatment of migrant workers in the Persian Gulf emirate.

I also put this report together for the BBC World Service’s World Football show.

BBC World Service: Macedonia Cup Final

The Macadonia Cup FinalEthnic Albanian kids playing football in Kumanovo, MacedoniaTeteks fans celebrate a goal.
All photos © James Montague

Back in May I was in Macedonia covering the on going political crisis (well, crises). There is now an impasse, with pro and anti government camps outside various buildings. The EU is trying to mediate, but seems to make no one happy.

To understand something of what is going on in Macedonia I decided to visit two football clubs from Tetevo. This is the heartland of Macedonia’s minority ethnic minority population and the only majority Albanian city in the country. The city has two teams: the wealthy Shkendija (who represent the Albanian population and whose fans are hardcore Greater Albanian nationalists) and Teteks, who represent the city’s shrinking minority Christian Orthodox population.

I visited Shkendija’s training ground, met one of the leaders from the club’s hard core ultras and then went to the Macedonian Cup Final, where Teteks were playing Skopje based club Rabotnicki, and filed this report for the BBC World Service’s World Football Show.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02rf5p1