Last year I finally managed to visit North Korea. For over ten years I have been trying to get in to the Hermit Kingdom, by far the most secretive and repressive state in the world, to find out about football there.
Despite its isolation, North Korea has qualified for two men’s World Cups and four women’s finals. How do they do it? And what does football look like in North Korea? What about the league? And were the famous team that reached the quarter finals in 1966 really punished on their return to Pyongyang for carousing with women before the match against Portugal?
All these were answered, and more, in this long read for the Bleacher Report. It was an unforgettable trip, largely because North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb on my second day there.
For the past few months I have been writing scripts for Tifo, a great new football website that has made a name for themselves by designing and publishing amazing YouTube videos illustrating tactics, owners and players, amongst other topics.
After my book The Billionaires Club was published I have been working on a videos which illuminate who the owners of some of the world’s biggest football clubs are, how they made their money and how they came to owning a football club in the first place.
This video tells the story of the Glazer family and their take over of Manchester United in 2005. It is an intriguing tale. Malcolm Glazer, the family’s late patriarch, was never really a sports fan but managed to first buy an NFL franchise (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and then purchased arguably the most popular football club in the world without putting much of his family’s own money in.
It is an intriguing tale involving politics, greed and, at the centre, a tug-of-love over a famous racehorse’s sperm. Really.
And if you want more of that kind of stuff, we recorded a podcast to talk all about…
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.