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.
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…
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.
A few months back I spent some time in Kosovo covering the newly minted national team’s debut World Cup campaign. Before I left for Albania, I went to the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica.
Mitrovica remains a divided city. The south of the city is overwhelmingly Kosovar Albanian, the north Serbian. KFOR forces still patrol the Ibar river that cuts through Mitrovica. It used to be one of the richest cities in Yugoslavia thanks to the Trepca mine, a huge underground complex that once employed 20,000 people.
There was a football team too, which once played in the Yugoslav First League alongside the likes of Red Star and Partizan Belgrade. The various wars, however, split Yugoslavia, split Mitrovica and, eventually, split the city’s football club.
There are now two Trepcas, one playing in the Kosovo first division, and one in the Serbian fourth division. (In fact there is a third, Trepca 89, but it isn’t connected with either). I spent a week in the city and travelled with both teams for a fixture to find out about Trepca’s history, and maybe a little about Mitrovica’s future.
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?
The football season is coming to an end in Europe and the Middle East. And there was one competition that was at the crucial later stages in Doha, the capital of Qatar: the semi-finals of the 2016 Workers Cup.
Ever since Qatar won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup finals, the tiny emirate has been under the microscope. And one of the issues that has been getting plenty of criticism is the treatment of migrant workers, who make up the majority of the country’s population but live in camps far from the rest of the city.
Many complain of their passports being taken, wages unpaid, terrible accommodation and low pay. They are also tied to their employers, the so-called kafala system, which has been described as a form of modern slavery. It prevents workers changing jobs whilst also requiring permission from the employer to leave the country. This has led to abuses.
It is a scandalous issue across the Gulf, but whilst little is being done in Saudi and the UAE, the 2002 World Cup has forced both FIFA and Qatar to at least try and confront the problem.
So I went to the Workers Cup, a competition organised by leading lights in Qatari football and paid for by the companies, where the laborers who build Qatar come together every Friday to play for their company teams in a bid to win the cup and with it a cash prize (and a mobile phone).
I spoke to dozens of players and workers. Some were happy, many were not. Conditions and pay were the common theme. But they were being paid on time. And most still had their passports. But the atmosphere, which was full of fans from the camps too, was incredible and I got horribly sunburned. Afterwards we went back to one of the camps: isolated and lifeless. It showed just how big the scale of the issue is.
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.