Thirty-one Nil - On The Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey by James Montague, book review

A celebration of the game's outsiders that can't fail to score
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The Independent Culture

Ask anyone about England's chances of winning this month's World Cup in Brazil and they'll likely snigger in resignation. England might not have come close to winning a World Cup since 1990, but the Three Lions have played in all but three World Cup finals since 1950. We don't have it too bad.

For others, just getting to the tournament is a pipe dream. For some, even getting into the qualifiers is a pipe dream. For James Montague – whose previous effort, When Friday Comes: Football in the Warzone, followed the travails of the beautiful game in the Middle East – it's these teams where the real World Cup stories lie, not with Messi, Rooney and Neymar. Judging by the stories he uncovers, he's correct to think that.

Thirty-One Nil reeks of air miles. In just over 300 pages, Montague tells the stories of Eritrea's disappearing footballers (their national team routinely absconds and pleads asylum on away fixtures); of the Kosovan officials trying to gain Fifa recognition for their country; of the role football plays in modern Rwanda and post-earthquake Haiti; of the Palestinians whose opponents struggle to make it into the West Bank to fulfil fixtures.

And then there's the team who provide the book's title. People who follow the "dead donkey" bit of news bulletins may remember the 2001 World Cup qualifier in which Australia battered American Samoa a record 31-0. While the world giggled (and Australia subsequently upped sticks to join the more challenging Asian federation), that match left its mark on American Samoa's players. Especially goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, who by the time Montague joined him for qualifiers in 2011 was still trying to rid himself of that albatross. Ten years on, the American Samoans still hadn't won a game. Luckily, for Montague, he was there to witness their first ever win, a 2-1 victory over Tonga.

Elsewhere, history is more elusive. Haiti, Iceland, Jordan and post-revolutionary Egypt don't make it to Brazil. But Montague makes their stories captivating nevertheless, finding the players, officials, and coaches whose stories are told with more colour than in the media-controlled environs of elite football.Football is full of these amazing stories. As the book was published, the Palestine team Montague saw being eliminated by Thailand in 2011 recorded their greatest achievement winning May's AFC Challenge Cup (a minor version of the Asian Cup).

Montague's triumph is using the vast World Cup qualifying process as a bind to tie them all together. In doing so, he captures a dazzling amount of detail, woven together with a deft understanding of modern geopolitics. It's a result. Few of the teams Montague meets are likely to produce hall of fame performances, but Thirty-One Nil is well worthy of entry to the canon of great football reportage.

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