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.

 

New York Times: Two Steaua Bucharests

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Steaua Bucharest owner Gigi Becali in his Bucharest palace ©James Montague

There is arguably no more controversial owner in world football than Steaua Bucharest owner Gigi Becali. It would be hard to list all of the Romanian businessman’s infractions.

He has been in jail for corruption, has run for president, derided women and gay people and has left behind a long trail of enemies. But his biggest battle may be in front of him.

Becali has funded Steaua for the best part of the last decade. It was once the army’s team and a few years ago the army made a play to seize the club back from Becali. What has followed is a tug of war over who owns Steaua, its name and its history.

Now there are two Steauas, one which the army owns and will play in Romania’s 4th Division. And Becali’s Steaua, who have changed their name to FC FCSB.

I went to Bucharest for the New York Times and sat down with Becali and met the army general who believes he is now in charge of the true Steaua Bucharest. You can read the feature here…

You can hear more of that interview on the BBC World Service’s World Football show, here…

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: An Israeli team blooms in the desert

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Hapoel Be’ersheva’s famous ultras at the club’s Turner Stadium. © Dan Balilty for The New York Times

I’ve been following Israeli football for a few years now. The league is a fascinating reflection of its society, which is far more complex than many think. Last month I went to the Negev desert to do a story for The New York Times about the current champions Hapoel Be’ersheva.

Be’ersheva is an ancient city, with a mixed population of jews, muslims and bedouin. It’s largely been on the periphery of Israeli society and has been seen as a poor cousin to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But not any more.

The team and the city’s fortunes changed when the club was bought by Alona Barkat ten years ago. She’s a wealthy philanthropist and also the only woman to own a football team in Israel. The club’s renaissance has matched the city’s, which is now the fastest growing in the country.

The team are on the verge of their fourth title and play Besiktas in the Europa League Last 32. They lost last night in Be’ersheva, 3-1. But they will play a return leg in Istanbul next week. Which will be tense.

I visited Be’ersheva and spoke to fans, players, and Alona — the Queen of Be’ersheva — for this New York Time’s profile of the club and its remarkable story.

You can also hear my report from Be’ersheva for the BBC World Service’s World Football show.

 

 

New York Times: A 48 team World Cup

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Bhutan making it to the next round of 2018 World Cup qualification. ©James Montague

It is probably quite obvious by now that I often write about football teams who don’t win very many matches. Thirty One Nil covered 2014 World Cup qualification from the perspective of the national teams who will likely never qualify for a finals.

So the up and coming reform of the World Cup, an expansion to 48 teams, has started an interesting debate about the minnows in world football. Does the expansion help smaller nations to dream big, as expansion of the European Championships did? Or is it anti-meritocratic, giving away places in the finals to teams who do not deserve a place? Or does the expansion effectively ruin the drama and intrigue of qualification?

I revisited some of the people I met on my journey around the world writing Thirty One Nil as well as others, including the president of the Bhutan football federation (whose national team played, and won, its first ever World Cup qualification match in March 2015), and asked them.

The result was this piece for the New York Times, featuring Bob Bradley and Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic.

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.

 

 

New York Times: A Tale of One City

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FK Trepca walk out onto the pitch for their Serbian fourth division match. ©James Montague

A few months back I spent some time in Kosovo covering the newly minted national team’s debut World Cup campaign. Before I left for Albania, I went to the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica.

Mitrovica remains a divided city. The south of the city is overwhelmingly Kosovar Albanian, the north Serbian. KFOR forces still patrol the Ibar river that cuts through Mitrovica. It used to be one of the richest cities in Yugoslavia thanks to the Trepca mine, a huge underground complex that once employed 20,000 people.

There was a football team too, which once played in the Yugoslav First League alongside the likes of Red Star and Partizan Belgrade. The various wars, however, split Yugoslavia, split Mitrovica and, eventually, split the city’s football club.

There are now two Trepcas, one playing in the Kosovo first division, and one in the Serbian fourth division. (In fact there is a third, Trepca 89, but it isn’t connected with either). I spent a week in the city and travelled with both teams for a fixture to find out about Trepca’s history, and maybe a little about Mitrovica’s future.

I wrote this story for the New York Times about it. The excellent photos are by James Hill.