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: 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.

 

The Blizzard: The Agony Of Doha

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Much has been written about Qatar, its rise as a Middle East superpower, its huge wealth and, of course, the fact that it will controversially host the 2022 World Cup. But back in 1993 the emirate was a very different place.

Back then, Qatar hosted one of the most politically explosive football tournaments ever held: the final round of Asian World Cup qualification for USA ’94. Amongst the teams competing over the ten day tournament was North and South Korea, Iran and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Japan.

North Korea, Iraq and Iran were all under US sanctions and it was unclear if any of the teams would be allowed to compete if they qualified. The US State Department sent an official along and then FIFA general secretary Sepp Blatter sent a special group of top European referees to keep order.

But the tournament was best known for its incredible conclusion, that would plunge Japan into despair, and send South Korea to the finals thanks to the last kick of the final match.

I pieced together the story of the Agony of Doha for The Blizzard, which you can read here. 

New York Times: Qatar’s Workers Cup

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Supporters of the Indian-Danish construction company Larsen & Toubro arrive early to cheer on their team at the Workers Cup in Doha, Qatar. ©James Montague

New York Times: A Respite of Soccer for Qatar’s Laborers

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.

I wrote this piece for the New York Times about it. It includes some excellent photography by Ukrainian French journalist Olya Morvan, whose website you can find 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.