Thirty-One Nil, the Cross British Sports Book Award winning effort from James Montague, picks up some of the tangled threads of his earlier work When Friday Comes, the politically complex background to many of the smaller nations that constitute what is, somewhat euphemistically, referred to as the world football family.
But while When Friday Comes concentrated on the Middle East, Montague here broadens his palette to describe a variety of minnows embarking on the often tortuous, frequently unsuccessful, journey towards eventual World Cup qualification.
Montague is described by Grant Wahl as ‘the Indiana Jones of soccer writing’ and while bull-whips might be prohibited in the stadia he visits, they might also be a good idea at many of them. His journey, dropping in on some of the smallest nations in world football, narrates a litany of the challenges faced by the players and countries that aspire to participate on football’s greatest stage. From the nascent, scarred nations of Kosovo and Palestine to those such as Eritrea or Haiti, ravaged by war or natural disasters, the juxtaposition of at times hellish environments and the remarkable hope and strength that grow in them is utterly compelling. Montague is never patronising or belittling either, telling each story straight and with detail, clarity, and excellent access.
Earthquakes, genocide, match-fixing, corruption, politics, and civil war loom large throughout the book, as does the spectre of FIFA, ironically made more intriguing in the wake of recent revelations. Whether it is Sepp Blatter’s genuinely important championing of the right of Palestine to exist as a FIFA-recognised nation, his somewhat murkier commitment to the same status being conferred on Kosovo or, more darkly, the elision of football and aid in Haiti, FIFA is everywhere in football’s developing world.
The book is by no means bleak, though. Several figures emerge from it as engaging, almost heroic figures. There is Bob Bradley, the American coach with piercing blue eyes and a strong coaching pedigree who begins the Egyptian national team job in the middle of the Arab Spring and takes his social responsibilities beyond football very seriously. Or the Samoan centre-back, Jaiyah Saelu, the first transgender player to appear in a FIFA qualifying match. She is a fa’afafine, a traditional role in Samoan society. To be a fa’afafine one must be “Samoan, born a man, feel you are a woman, be sexually attracted to males and, importantly, proud to be called and labelled fa’afafine.” She is also one of Samoa’s best players and totally accepted by both her teammates and the opposition that face the tiny Pacific island.
These and other individuals populate a book that, though often infused with foreboding or failure, ultimately manages to retain an uplifting sense of transcendence of circumstance, of the joy of the possible and the joy of striving for it. This is achieved because Montague is a first-class writer, a genuine story-finding and telling journalist who happens to have arrived at sport as his subject area, but who goes well beyond the standard clichés that muddy or devalue much of this sort of writing. In this, he exceeds books like Franklin Foer’s How Football Explains The World with a lucid account rooted in reportage, rather than the didacticism of Foer. Montague uses sport as a lens through which to examine interesting societies and countries, but never loses his ability to keep the story grounded in the football itself.
Perhaps the message that radiates from this well-written, thoughtful book with the greatest clarity is the transformative and escapist quality of football for these tiny, often troubled nations: as Jay’Lee Hodgson of Montserrat articulates with wonderful simplicity, “For ninety minutes I just let my troubles go.” Of course, the troubles remain for many of these countries, but Montague’s book manages to confront that and remain uplifting, a real testament to the power of those ninety minutes.
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You can also follow James Montague on Twitter (@JamesPiotr)