Tifo: Meet the Owners

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.

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.


New York Times: The Drone Heard Around the World

I’ll always remember where I was on October 14 2014. Well, October 15 2014.

I’d woken up in Sydney, Australia, and checked my phone. There were dozens of messages about a football match in Serbia.

It was a 2016 European Championship qualification match between Serbia and Albania, at the FK Partizan Stadium in Belgrade.

Ever since the draw was made it was clear that tensions would be high for the game. The two countries shared a fraught history, most recently over the 1999 Kosovo War. Serbs view Kosovo as an inviolable part of of their state; the ethnic Albanian Kosovars that make up over 90 percent of the territory want independence.

The Albania national team had never qualified for a major tournament before, and hadn’t played in Belgrade for over 50 years. The match, as expected, was played in a febrile atmosphere.

And then, in the 42nd minute, the drone appeared, carrying a banner covered in Albanian nationalist messages.

What followed made headlines around the world. There was fighting on the pitch, fighting off the pitch and, finally, the match was abandoned. It created a political meltdown between the two countries.

But the question was: Who flew the drone? At first the brother of the Albanian PM was blamed. The Albania players even had their bags searched.

In fact, the pilot was a 33 year old crane operator called Ismail Morina who had been holed up in the cupola of a near by cathedral and was making his escape to Kosovo.

Ismail Morina in Kosovo.

I managed to track Ismail down and spent a few days with him and the Albanian national football team’s supporters group the Red and Black, first in Kosovo and then in Albania. I wrote this feature about him for the New York Times ahead of the rematch against Serbia in the Albanian city of Elbasan.

But that is when it started getting weird. After I filed the story a crew from YouTube channel Copa90 arrived to do a story about the match. We drove to the city of Durres to meet Ismail for another interview. He was welcoming and open, showing us the death threats he got regularly on Facebook. He also showed us his gun, which he kept for protection.

Morina and the Red and Black at a war grave in Kosovo

He dropped us off at our apartment. The next morning I got a message from my girlfriend. Ismail had been arrested. The police had searched him a few minutes after we had seen him last and found his guns, as well as a host of tickets for the game (the Albanian FA had told me that UEFA instructed them to ban him for the game, despite him being a national hero).

For the next three days his arrest was the main story on Albanian news. But every story (falsely) claimed that he had been arrested because of the NY Times interview, even though it had been published after his arrest. Cue frantic phone calls from angry Albanian fans demanding to know why I had written about Ismail’s gun! In the end, I had to go on Albanian TV to clear things up before it emerged that the police had been following him for weeks, fearing another stunt if Serbian PM Vucic turned up to the game (in the end he didn’t).

The Red and Black

Albania lost the game against Serbia 2-0, but beat Armenia three days later to secure their first ever qualification to a major tournament. But Ismail wasn’t there. He’s is still in jail. It was a crazy few days. You can hear more about it in this BBC World Service World Football report.

Thousands took to the streets or Tirana, Paris and Pristina to celebrate Albania’s qualification.

Members of the Red and Black in Kosovo

The Red and Black are campaigning to have Ismail released. Albania were awarded the three points over the drone match in Belgrade. For many he remains a national hero who believe he played an important role in Albania’s qualification. After all, if that drone had not flown, would Albania be preparing for a Euro 2016 play off against Sweden, instead of preparing for France?