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.
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.
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.
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?
The football season is coming to an end in Europe and the Middle East. And there was one competition that was at the crucial later stages in Doha, the capital of Qatar: the semi-finals of the 2016 Workers Cup.
Ever since Qatar won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup finals, the tiny emirate has been under the microscope. And one of the issues that has been getting plenty of criticism is the treatment of migrant workers, who make up the majority of the country’s population but live in camps far from the rest of the city.
Many complain of their passports being taken, wages unpaid, terrible accommodation and low pay. They are also tied to their employers, the so-called kafala system, which has been described as a form of modern slavery. It prevents workers changing jobs whilst also requiring permission from the employer to leave the country. This has led to abuses.
It is a scandalous issue across the Gulf, but whilst little is being done in Saudi and the UAE, the 2002 World Cup has forced both FIFA and Qatar to at least try and confront the problem.
So I went to the Workers Cup, a competition organised by leading lights in Qatari football and paid for by the companies, where the laborers who build Qatar come together every Friday to play for their company teams in a bid to win the cup and with it a cash prize (and a mobile phone).
I spoke to dozens of players and workers. Some were happy, many were not. Conditions and pay were the common theme. But they were being paid on time. And most still had their passports. But the atmosphere, which was full of fans from the camps too, was incredible and I got horribly sunburned. Afterwards we went back to one of the camps: isolated and lifeless. It showed just how big the scale of the issue is.
2015 was full of some pretty bad news when it came to football, indeed, sports governance in general. But just as FIFA was beginning to implode under the weight of accusation, qualification for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia began in Asia, just eight months after Germany’s World Cup triumph in Rio.
The twelve worst ranked teams were drawn into six, two legged matches. Clearly the pick of the round (at least, the pick for someone who has written a book about international underdogs) was Sri Lanka v Bhutan.
I had briefly considered trying to get to see Timor Leste v Mongolia, given that it was both one of the most unusual ties in world football and the fact that it would technically be the first to kick off.
But instead I headed off to Sri Lanka, and then to the isolated and little known mountain kingdom of Bhutan, for what turned out to be some of the most memorable matches I’d ever seen.
Bhutan were ranked dead last by FIFA and were playing their first ever World Cup match. This was a country that once held the world record for the biggest ever defeat (20-0, v Kuwait) until Australia beat American Samoa 31-0 in 2001. This was also a country that had a policy of isolationism that saw TV banned until the late 1990s.
It was a pretty special few weeks, and I recorded the trip for the BBC World Service’s World Football show.