Bleacher Report: Inside Iranian football

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Outside the Azadi Stadium, Tehran ©James Montague

Back in February, I thought months of hard work had come to nothing.

Since last year I had been trying to get a reporting visa into Iran. Team Meli had easily qualified for the World Cup and were, to my mind at least, the best team in Asia. But as ever with Iran, who qualified with ease, football only told half the story.

For the last few games of qualification the real world had impinged on the party. After Iran had qualified, at a reception with President Rouhani, the team’s captain Masoud Shojaei asked him to lift the ban on women entering Iran’s football stadiums. A few months later he was dropped from the team after an outcry by conservative law makers when he played for his Greek team Panionios in a Europa League match against Maccabi Tel Aviv. Iran maintains an unofficial ban against any Iranian sportsmen or women competing against Israelis. In the middle of all this was the team’s combative coach Carlos Queiroz.

So, I wanted to write more about what was going on in Iran, by first going to the Tehran Derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal, one of the biggest matches in world football. But with no visa, that seemed impossible. And then, on the morning I was supposed to leave, my visa suddenly arrived. A few hours later I was in Tehran at the beginning of a four month journey that took me to Iran, Greece, Austria and, ultimately, to St Petersburg for Iran’s first game of the 2018 World Cup finals.

The result was this long read for the Bleacher Report. It gives a little background to Iran’s amazing campaign, but also to some of the forces that underpin Iranian society, and the people who are bravely trying to fight against them.

MEE: Syria’s World Cup story, Brutal politics behind the beautiful game

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The Syria under 23 team train before a match in Amman, Jordan. ©James Montague.

World Cup qualification always throws up an underdog story or two, and the Road to Russia 2018 was no different. But perhaps the most complex story was the Syrian national team’s incredible campaign.

This was a country crippled by war and exiled from home who, nevertheless, managed to reach the Asian play-off stage against Australia before being knocked out in extra time.

By any definition, this was an incredible achievement. Yet this wasn’t a typical underdog story. For those that wanted to see the removal of Syria’s president Bashar al Assad the team had come to represent the regime. Many players felt they could not represent the national team whilst he was still in power. Yet, as the rebel forces in the civil war crumbled, many Syrians – Assad including – had held up the national team as a symbol of unity rather than division.

It was a complex tale, and I wrote about it for Middle East Eye, which you can read here. 

I also wrote this longer piece on Syrian football and the civil war for World Soccer magazine back in 2015.

Tifo: Meet the Owners

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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

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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.

 

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.

 

 

Bleacher Report: Kosovo’s Rise

A FK Gjilani fan during the Gjilan Derby, October 2016. ©James Montague

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The Dawn of Kosovo’s Football Nation

Back in 2012 I met two men who seemed to be on an impossible mission. Fadil Vokrri and Eroll Salihu were, as they are today, the president and general secretary of the Football Federation of Kosovo.

We met in a roadside cafe outside Zurich. Switzerland was playing Albania in a 2014 World Cup qualification match. The majority of the players on show had Kosovar roots and the two men wanted the players to sign a petition calling for Kosovo to be allowed to play against other FIFA teams.

Up to then the Kosovo association, like the self-declared republic, was largely unrecognised by the world. So we snuck into the team hotel and met Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami, who all signed.

It seemed a long, long way away from happening. But in May this year Kosovo was recognised by FIFA and UEFA, just in time to join 2018 World Cup qualification. I met up again with Fadil and Eroll and went on the road for their first ever competitive game, against Finland in Turku.

It was a historic match that was reflective of the still sensitive political situation in the Balkans. I wrote this long read for The Bleacher Report about the build up to the game.

A month later I headed back to Kosovo as they prepared for their next two games, and travelled on the road with them to Poland. You can hear that story on the BBC World Service’s World Football show.

 

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.