Thirty-One Nil: On The Road With The Outsiders

INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
PHOTOGRAPHY: JAMES MONTAGUE

James Montague travelled the world following the game’s ultimate underdogs as they attempted to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. We asked him about the highs and lows of a journey on which he was tear-gassed in three different continents and witnessed football’s first American Samoan victory haka…

San Marino 2 The World Cup

Image: The President of the San Marino FA sits behind the replica World Cup he keeps on his desk

James, in the final chapter of Thirty-One Nil, the former San Marino coach Giampaolo Mazza tells you that “Everyone who is normal sees themselves in us”. Does that sum up the appeal of the underdog for you?

I think there is more to it than that but, for me that was just the perfect end to the book, because when you look at the underdog, they are a reflection of us. They are the pub team who gets to the first round of the FA Cup, or the French non-league side who reaches the cup final. I think we need that because if sport became only about the elite teams, then the joy of sport is gone.

I get a similar question quite a lot, which is: “Why do you write about these teams that nobody cares about?” but, for me, people do care about them. Otherwise, people would only care about the Champions League and would only support a few top teams, but that’s not the case.

What you need in every competition is the element of surprise and, without that, sport becomes a dead-eyed, black-hearted place. It ceases to be the same enjoyable spectacle that we have with the underdogs. What they represent is part of what we fell in love with about sport.

There is still an appeal to people like Eric ‘The Eel’ Moussambani. Ask anyone who won the 100m freestyle in the 2000 Olympics and very few of them will be able to tell you, but they all remember “Eric the Eel”. 

Some of the nations you cover in the book are minnows in size and sporting stature, while others are beset by economic or interior problems. Would you say you write about football in order to write about other issues, or vice versa? 

Thirty-One Nil coverPretty much! Somebody asked me this question at a cultural translation workshop I did with Simon Kuper at Bristol University and I couldn’t work out whether I was a frustrated foreign correspondent or a failed foreign correspondent.

I don’t really see myself as a sportswriter. Growing up, sports writing in Britain was very much the blow-by-blow account of what was going on in the sport, but what I loved reading about sports was not really sports writing at all. It was Norman Mailer, it was the great American guys who were writing about sports I didn’t even understand or like, but which somehow they managed to reflect a characteristic of the national soul, or a specific situation. I think people in Britain are generally quite suspicious of this kind of writing…

Although we probably produce the highest volume of that kind of writing nowadays, so something must be changing… 

That’s true, but I think that is a relatively recent thing. When I started writing in this way, about 10 years ago, it was very hard to be taken seriously, or to get published. Now we have the Blizzard and long-form writing on the internet, especially the Guardian, which really stepped up around 2007 or 2008 with its blog section, giving a space for these kinds of articles.

I grew up reading match reports as well, and going to West Ham in the early Nineties, where I stood on the North Bank. So I do try to write for people with a knowledge of football, but ultimately I’m not really writing about the sport, I’m writing about the society it defines itself within, but it is done with a level of respect for the game, of which I was a fan long before I was a writer. 

Travelling the world appeals to most people at some point in their life. How much of the motivation for writing this book was rooted in the desire to see these unlikely destinations? 

I went where I thought there would be an amazing story, so I just let the stories determine my travel.

There were only two places that I knew in advance I would have to go to. One of those was the first game of World Cup qualifying – or what was scheduled to be the first game of qualifying – which was Palestine vs Tajikistan. I had arranged to go to Jordan to meet the team, to travel with them and see that game, but about a week before I was due to go, the Montserrat vs Belize game was brought forward and that became the first game instead! This was just the start of the logistical nightmare I would have throughout the entire book, because I didn’t really know where I was going to end up.

After seeing the incredible story of a police state manipulating the media following the Algeria vs Egypt game ahead of the previous World Cup, and then looking at the North Korean qualification in 2010 as well, I thought if you just followed the entire qualification process from start to finish, you would tell this amazing story, not just of qualification, but of the world in that particular time. So it wasn’t about travel, I just love talking to people and finding out about their world.

I remember meeting a well-known sportswriter out in Brazil and telling him that I was going to meet the fans, to stand with them and find out about them, because I think they are often more interesting than the players. And this sportswriter was appalled by that, almost as if he thought fans were idiots, the bottom-feeders of the game. But they’re not – they are the reason why the game exists in its current state.

For me, it was about going out and telling the different stories. The only places I had to go were Palestine – for the first game – and American Samoa, because of the 31-0 defeat they suffered to Australia in 2001 and the fact that they were trying to win their first-ever competitive game. What a story.

And you were there when American Samoa finally won their first competitive game… 

Ah, that was the absolute top. I don’t think that will ever be bettered. There were maybe 19 people in the crowd and yet that was probably the finest single sporting moment I have seen, or ever will see.

American Samoa 1 Victory haka
Image: American Samoa players celebrate clinching their first-ever competitive victory

How nervous do you get when you willingly place yourself in harm’s way? 

There have been moments when I have been terrified, especially when there has been tear gas going off, but there are two types of people – those who see a fire and run towards it and those who run away from it. Unfortunately, I have the part of my brain missing that tells you not to run towards the fire, and there are certain professions that fits with. Somehow, I managed to fit that into football journalism.

I went to Cairo on the day of the announcement of the trial verdicts following the Port Said tragedy. There were 15,000 people gathered when the announcement was made that there were going to be mass executions for the Al Masry fans and Port Said officials who had been found guilty, and there were mass celebrations at this announcement – people were firing guns into the air and it was quite frightening.

I later went to Port Said, where people had tried to get the Al Masry fans out of prison and 40-odd people had been shot dead. There was subsequently a curfew and it was probably one of the most frightening moments of my life, arriving in this deserted city and finding absolutely nobody there to talk to. I came across an unmanned barricade in a deserted city and I remember just thinking, “What the fuck is going on here?”

Finally, I found the street where the riot was going on and the police were firing tear gas and, later, live ammunition – in fact, someone was killed quite near me. Every day, these protests were going on and the next morning they would go to the mosques, where you would see the bodies in shrouds being marched down the streets. That’s the way the next protests would then start.

At that point, I started to think, “I haven’t seen a football match in Egypt for over a year and I’m here at these protests – what the hell am I doing?” It just wasn’t football journalism anymore.

You seemed to befriend Bob Bradley a bit in Cairo. How intense was that experience for him, as an American coach taking charge of a national team in a time of turmoil? 

A lot of people have written over the years that Bob is this intense character, but he is actually quite relaxed. He is incredibly intelligent, he read about everything that was going on in Egypt and wasn’t afraid to ask questions of people in authority either.

In terms of what Bob did, why he stayed and how he conducted himself, he was by far the most impressive character that I met…and have ever met in football.

The most impressive thing was how he picked up the Al-Ahly players after Port Said and how he incorporated them back into the side. It showed every possible managerial and life skill you could have. I know they didn’t qualify after that disastrous result in Ghana, but without him I don’t know what would have happened to Egyptian football, and certainly that national team. I think it would have just dissolved into something very acrimonious.

Remember, a lot of those players have very different political views – some of them outwardly supported Hosni Mubarak, others – like Mohamed Aboutrika – supported the Muslim Brotherhood and other players who supported the military dictatorship in the name of stability. So, Bob Bradley had all those players, with different political views, and he allowed them to talk and air them together. He didn’t shy away from it and the fact that they even got to the play-offs and the fact that he managed to negotiate that qualification process, whilst also paying respect to the families affected by the violence, was a beautiful thing. Despite things not working out, there is a lot of affection for Bob in Egypt and I think that is down to the way he handled himself.

Egypt 6 Tribute to those that died in Port Said
Image: Al-Ahly supporters in front of a tribute to those who died in Port Said

Many of the other managers you spoke to were sacked, with the notable exception of Lars Lagerbäck in Iceland. International football management is a fool’s errand, isn’t it? 

There was a moment when Bosnian fans and journalists were tweeting me asking me not to go to their crucial game against Slovakia because every time I turned up somewhere, that team would get knocked out and that manager would get sacked. They called me the Black Widow.

I went to Slovakia anyway, and when they were 1-0 down, I thought, “This is it. I’ve upset every Bosnian.” Luckily, they came back and won the game and that was the turning point for them.

But, yes, it could be seen as a fool’s errand but I think it shows the emotional power that is invested in international football. These managers are taking charge of hugely symbolic national moments and the scrutiny they are under is huge.

In the Croatia-Serbia chapter, I started off with two hugely proud, nationalistic guys in charge of the two sides, in Igor Stimac and Sinisa Mihajlovic, who were both quite right-wing and had both said some pretty horrific things about the war and about each other’s sides. They were national heroes when they started and they were both sacked by the end. 

In Rwanda you came across the lesser-spotted Eritrea team, travelling with their one-eyed state security official, and you wrote evocatively about your encounter with these guys from a very closed-off and distant country. Do you ever wonder, in situations like that, whether you should avoid quoting someone, or including certain observations, for the sake of your subjects’ safety? 

This is a worry that I often have and that story reactivated recently when I found out that most of the Eritrean national team that I met in 2011 had absconded whilst on international duty in Uganda.

Last month, I found out that they had arrived in a small town in Holland where they had been granted political asylum. A couple of journalists said, “Hey, you know about Eritrean football. Who are these guys?”

So I went to try and interview them for the New York Times and they wouldn’t do an interview with me, so I did a story about not interviewing them. They were terrified that their families back home would be targeted and punished if they spoke because this is one of the most brutal regimes on earth.

I wasn’t going to pursue them and hang around them to try and speak to them because I know that those fears are very real and I have always thought about the effect that an interview could have on the people back home in those situations.

The difference with the Eritrean guy in the book is that he was a regime official and he was there to keep an eye on the team. He gave me the regime’s point of view, but it is something I wrestle with all the time and I have often stopped myself from using stuff or pursuing certain lines of enquiry.

Finally, nationhood and ancestry play a role in this book as homegrown players and those called up from more football developed countries, with ancestry in distant lands come together, not always comfortably to form a national team. How much of a threat is that to the spirit of international football? 

I don’t think it is a threat so much as a reflection of the changing nature of the world around us. Borders are increasingly porous and this is something that will continue to happen as more people try to move to places like Europe, North America or Australia to try and find a better quality of life for themselves. You see the effects of this in European teams, with Balkan or Middle Eastern names in youth sides for countries like Spain and Sweden.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. For example, Stewart Ceus, a goalkeeper who grew up in America but played for Haiti, feels something Haitian – he grew up in a Haitian community in the USA and speaks a bit of Creole. I don’t think that is a threat to the spirit of international football.

I’m half-Polish and I have often wrestled with this identity issue. I’m British, I’m English, but I feel there is something in me that is Polish and if I was good enough to represent somebody at international level and Poland asked me to, I would do it, I would feel Polish and I would be proud.

So, for me, having these dual loyalties, which people seem to think are contradictory, is actually possible. It is a much more complex issue than it appears.

That is why the current Switzerland squad is so interesting, where you have people like Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami and Granit Xhaka, who have seen certain elements of the Swiss media ask where their heart lies, as if they can’t feel both Kosovan and Swiss.

Well, actually, yes you can. In fact, some of those players would go further than that and say they can feel Kosovan, Albanian and Swiss. Explaining these guys’ stories is also an issue of identity and how people feel connected to various nations. It just isn’t a black-and-white issue. 

Thirty-One Nil is published by Bloomsbury and is available now.

You can follow James Montague on twitter @jamespiotr
Keep up to date with all the latest from TheInsideLeft by following us on Twitter @theinsidelefty or by joining us on Facebook at facebook.com/theinsideleft

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