New York Times: The Saudis moving to La Liga

Last year I heard about an intriguing plan that had been hatched in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia had qualified for the World Cup. This isn’t that surprising. Until recently, the Saudi’s were the powerhouse of Asian football. The Saudi Pro League attracts big crowds and pays big wages. But there was always one big issue, one that is the same for almost all Gulf nations (with the recent exception of Qatar): Saudi players didn’t play in Europe.

OK, Saudi legend Sami al Jaber did play for Wolves very briefly in 2000 (he didn’t score a goal and Al Hilal terminated his loan agreement) … but still. A mixture of high wages, home comforts and a cultural suspicion of the west meant that some of Asia’s best players never moved to Europe’s best leagues.

That, it seems, was about to change. The Saudi federation announced that it was loaning out its World Cup squad ahead of Russia 2018 to give them the best possible chance. A deal was signed with La Liga and nine players were loaned to various first, second and third division sides in Spain.

It was a unique experiment. Not to mention a controversial one. So I went to Spain to meet some of the players, see how they were getting on, and write this story about it. 

You can also hear a bit more about this on the BBC World Service’s World Football podcast.

Copa90: From Syrian war to German wunderkind

A few weeks back I wrote a story for the New York Times about Mohammed Jaddou, the captain of Syria’s under 17 national team. At least he was. After captaining his team to a semi final finish in the 2014 AFC Championships (which qualified Syria for FIFA’s Under 17 World Cup finals in Chile next month), Mohammed fled the country, through the mountains of northern Syria into Turkey. From there he took a terrifying journey across sea in the hands of people smugglers, before being rescued off Sicily. He’s now in Germany, dreaming of Real Madrid.

I went back to Oberstaufen, the small town in southern Germany where Mohammed lives with his father and uncle, and made this film for Copa90 about his life, his escape and his hopes for the future.