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.

Tifo: The Story of World Cup qualification

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World Cup qualification in Europe. Illustration ©Philippe Fenner for Tifo.

After writing Thirty One Nil, the story of World Cup qualification told by the underdogs, I have found it quite hard not to keep following the minutiae of the Road to Russia 2018.

It was, again, a vast and colourful campaign across the globe full of intrigue, goals and political controversy. So, for Tifo, I helped put together three YouTube videos that told the story of qualification for the 2018 World Cup finals.

Part one covers qualification in Asia, Oceania and CONCACAF:

Part two covers the tough route teams have to take in Africa and South America:

Finally, part three focuses on qualification in Europe:

 

Tifo: Interview with Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo

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Panama national goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Illustration ©Philippe Fenner for Tifo.

Being someone who loves a World Cup underdog (and goalkeepers of World Cup underdogs) there was no better story of qualification for Russia 2018 than that of Panama and Jaime Penedo.

Panama had never qualified for a World Cup finals before and Penedo had played for almost a decade, fearing it would never happen. And then, an unlikely series of results in the finals rounds of CONCACAF qualification saw Panama reach Russia 2018. Pandamonium followed on the streets of Panama City.

Penedo now plays his football for Dinamo Bucharest in Romania. I caught up with him one weekend and interviewed him about this incredible achievement for Tifo, which you can read here.

You can also hear more of that interview on the BBC World Service’s World Football. Also on that show you can hear my story about the wildest league in European football right now: the Romanian fourth division. Really!

BBC World Service: Kosovo’s World Cup journey so far

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A fan with a Kosovo/Albania split flag before Switzerland played Albania in a 2014 World Cup qualification match ©James Montague

For the past few years I’ve been following the ups and downs of Kosovar football and the attempts by their football federation to gain recognition in FIFA and UEFA.

Since last year’s surprise recognition, the national team of Kosovo have embarked on qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Here’s a 15 minute radio documentary on the journey so far, from the first game against Finland, to their last against Turkey. Qualification begins again in March 2017.

 

 

Kosovo’s Long Road Towards Recognition

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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.