James Montague is a very, very busy man. Earlier this month, Thirty-One Nil, his incredible journey through World Cup 2014 qualification, picked up the British Sports Book Award for Football Book of the Year. When I got in touch for an interview, I stupidly thought he might be taking it easy, basking in the glory of his triumph. How wrong I was. ‘Are you free to Skype now?’ he asked. I wasn’t – ‘How about tomorrow?’ I suggested hopefully. ‘Sorry, I leave early in the morning’, he said. ‘Another trip – cracking story coming up.’
Here today, gone tomorrow – that’s the exciting life of world football’s greatest correspondent. But worry not; I emailed him my burning questions and he answered them brilliantly on the plane to God knows where.
1. Let’s start at the beginning – how did you get into sports journalism and how did that then lead to When Friday Comes?
It was all a bit of an accident. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, other than I was interested in the world and loved reading about sport, politics, and current affairs. I did a politics degree and managed to get an (unpaid) internship at the New Statesman. I was lucky. My parents lived in Essex so I could work at the evenings and weekends doing door to door canvassing for a double glazing company and just about earn enough to commute and stay afloat. After that six weeks, though, I was hooked, even though the one article I wrote for them (about an Amsterdam style cannabis cafe that opened in Bournemouth, that got their weed from a few grannies who grew it for them) was awful. It was cut from 2000 words to 500. I was gutted, but it was the best thing to happen to me. It taught me to be scrupulously self critical.
It was almost impossible to get a job in journalism though. So I had a 9 to 5 job, studied for an NCTJ in the evenings and freelanced where I could. I thought I could finally leave my job after a couple of features I wrote gave me hope. An interview with Jay Bothroyd for GQ, when he was the only English player in Serie A, and a story on the Palestinian national team trying to qualify for the 2006 World Cup for Jack. I couldn’t get a job in journalism, but worked out that ideas had equal currency. If the idea is strong enough, original enough, and you can get the email of the right person, you can honestly get published anywhere.
I thought I cracked it. But no sooner had I got a couple of commissions at Jack, the magazine shut down. Which was demoralising until a few days later. I got an email from an editor at Time Out Dubai. I’d applied for a job months before and forgotten about it. They dug through their slush pile and read a restaurant review, of all things, that they seemed to really like.
Two weeks later I was on a plane to the Middle East. It was quite surreal, arriving at Dubai airport in July, 45 degrees outside. I was wearing a white jumper, white pointy shoes, a dinner jacket and a green felt hat. I must have looked like a bellend. King Rat of the wannabe hipsters.
Still, I didn’t know much about Dubai, or the Middle East, but I worked out pretty quickly that you could understand a lot about the place through football. It was uncanny. One of my first trips was to Yemen. The national team had been banned from a regional tournament as the players had all failed drug tests. Yemen wasn’t far off a narco state back then. About 80 percent of the population was addicted to qat, a leaf drug. Including its national team, it seemed. After that I went to every country in the region and used football as a way of understanding the place, from sectarianism to dictatorship to the economic rise of The Gulf. I was very lucky that this all coincided with Qatar and the emirate of Abu Dhabi buying their way into European football too.
2. In Thirty-One Nil, you speak very eloquently about the romance and randomness of international football. Was this always your first love, rather than club football?
I would say the two were equal in my affections, but international football was the gold standard. I grew up in a family of West Ham fans and don’t remember us winning a single trophy. I was 9 months old when we beat Arsenal in the FA Cup final. Other than that, I think the Intertoto is about the size of it. So maybe that coloured my thinking a bit. But the absolute pinnacle of the game was the World Cup. All roads in the club game led there. To that. There was no greater honour than for your players to represent England and go to the World Cup finals.
There was an excitement and a disappointment that couldn’t be matched anywhere else. Whether it was the semi-final against Germany in 90, that qualifier for 94 against Holland. Argentina in 98, taking the lead against Brazil in 02; these were exhilarating moments. And I could feel the hope and optimism (and misery and disappointment) of a whole country around me.
But after 2006 something changed. There was now a cynicism and disregard for the England team. I guess it was partly anti-climactic. We had been promised this golden generation and even then we couldn’t emulate Italia 90. There’s only so many brave defeats anyone can stomach. But it was also about the changing nature of the game. The money in the game. The supremacy of the clubs. The dominance of the Champions League. The World Cup used to be a showpiece for the very best players (even if they often weren’t in the very best teams), our window on the world and the talent that is out there. The Champions League now serves that purpose.
With Thirty One Nil I wanted to try and show that the international game is worth fighting for. That it captures something and represents something deeper than the club game. The huge sacrifices people make. The romance. The politics, the nationalism, the conflict. And I found all that in the teams who would never likely be at a World Cup finals.
3. Thirty-One Nil is an incredible pilgrimage around the globe several times over. Did you write as you went along or was there a period afterwards where you collapsed from exhaustion and then collected your notes into a narrative?
I recorded everything with a microphone, on an outdated piece of radio equipment. Just as I embarked on the journey I was approached by the producer of the BBC World Service’s World Football show. They asked me to take a microphone to my next trip as I was on my way to Haiti. After that I was hooked and kept sending little mini documentaries of my trips. So I had all the colour and all the interviews recorded. There was no need to write as I went. I started writing it in September 2013. I was living in Hungary at the time with my then girlfriend. The last month was hell. The qualifiers finished in November and my last trip, to San Marino was December. I had about three weeks to finish. I don’t know how I did it. At the end I was exhausted, as the book had provided my metronome for the best part of three years. I was a bit lost. It didn’t help that my relationship didn’t survive the book writing process either.
In terms of structure, the World Cup qualification campaign provides the perfect structure. The natural drama and rhythm of qualification is the perfect literary device. In fact, i’d had the idea for Thirty One Nil, sometime before, during qualification for the 2010 World Cup. I couldn’t get it off the ground before the matches started though. But I was in Cairo for that crazy qualification match against Algeria and I thought: “this would have made an amazing end to a book.”
So I made sure I was there for the first planned qualifiers for 2014. I chose Palestine v Afghanistan. Although CONCACAF moved their qualifiers forward at the last minute, so Montserat v Belize was the first game. I was not best pleased! That wasn’t the only thing that didn’t go to plan with the book but it all worked out. Everything else that went wrong ended up being a better story. Including Palestine v Afghanistan.
4. The book is packed full of incredible characters. Can you pick a favourite, or is that an impossible task?
I spoke to so many people, but a few do stand out. Meeting Bob Bradley, who was in charge of the Egypt national team. A better man in football you will not meet.
I was fascinated by Omar Jarun, the American who played for the Palestine national team. He had never been to the West Bank before, and I accompanied him to his grandfather’s home town of Tulkarem, after spending two weeks on the road in Tajikistan and Jordan. That was quite emotional.
But I will never forget Samoa. The book is named after the world record international defeat, or victory, when Australia beat American Samoa 31-0 in 2001. That was kind of the starting point of the book. How do you pick yourself up after that? Why do you carry on?
But carry on they did. Losing by double figures every game. So I went to Samoa for the pre qualification tournament involving four teams: Samoa, American Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga. I went expecting to see three massacres. Instead I met American Samoa’s goalkeeper, who had been haunted by the 31-0 defeat, a transgender centre back and Thomas Rongen, a Dutch coach who had been employed to kick their arses into shape. To be there when they won their first ever game, in front of a few dozen people, to see what it meant, is a moment i’ll never forget. There’s a brilliant documentary about it called Next Goal Wins. If you look closely, you can see me in the background, accidenally ruining their best shots…
5. As a whole, I found Thirty-One Nil to be a very optimistic book, full of the hope that football can bring to even the most war-torn of countries. Was that always the intention and if so to what extent was that challenged by what you found?
I’m quite an optimistic person at heart. I tend to write about a lot of misery too — conflict zones tend to be unhappy places — but people are brilliantly resilient. They live, they continue, because it is the only option. There’s a quote by Churchill I think: When in hell, keep walking. And I wanted to capture that; the dignity in the small acts of resistance against fate and circumstance.
But, yes, there were some tough moments. Being in Port Said after two dozen people had been shot dead and the city was placed under curfew. Meeting the Eritrea team who had fled the horrible repression back home when on international duty, knowing they would never see their families again. And knowing that their actions might have brought reprisals against their loved ones. And then there was Lebanon. This was different. I lived in Beirut for a time so I knew about the sectarianism in the country. It was reflected in the league. Teams had Sunni, Shia, Orthodox, Druze identities. It was one of the reasons the national team was terrible: those differences couldn’t be reconciled. Then along came Theo Bucker, a former Dortmund player from the 70s who managed to bang heads and get them playing. It brought the country together when they beat South Korea and made it to the final group stage of qualification. It was a proper rally around the flag moment. And then it turned out that several players had allegedly taken cash to throw crucial games. Bucker was distraught, and a country learned that when it comes to symbols of unity, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
6. In the end, who were you supporting at the World Cup? Or were you too tired by then to even care?!
I took a break for a few months but was ready to go to Brazil. I’d gone to the Confederations Cup in 2013 and covered the protests there. It was a mess. Tear gas, rioting, violence. So I knew I had to go to the finals.
Of course, I supported England, but I also looked out for the underdogs. Iran and Bosnia in particular. But also the US. I spent a bit of time crashing on the sofa of the New York Times guys in Rio. Watching American fans on the streets fall in with football is a wonderful thing. It reminds me of what the English have lost.
7. Indiana Jones swears by his hat, his khaki and his whip. So what three items would the ‘Indiana Jones of soccer writing’ pick for his world football survival kit?
Other than the obvious stuff I need to work with (laptop, camera, microphone and radio recorder) I took a picture of what I packed when I went to Brazil. The one thing I pack now is a gas mask. I’ve been tear gassed so many times I’ve learned the hard way. A mate of mine who deals in military surplus got me a good deal on a Czech one. I also pack a bottle of vinegar (which you dab under your eyes to counter act the gas) and a shit load of wet wipes.
8. And finally, what’s next? Another journey around the football world?
Well, i’m kind of ruined now. I can’t help but get myself to an obscure fixture. I was just at the first round of 2018 qualifiers, Bhutan v Sri Lanka. That was incredible. But last week was the first round of WCQs I’ve missed in almost six years. I miss it. But I’m working on another book now, about the global flow of money in the game. That will take me to a few places I haven’t been. I don’t really know how to sit still.