Thirty-One Nil

On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey James Montague


No sport generates extremes of passion like football. And for football, there’s no bigger stage than the World Cup finals, every four years. The road to Brazil 2014 started in 2011 with hundreds of qualifying games in every corner of the world. For teams, players and fans, the games represent national identity, sometimes against backdrops of war, riots and revolution. “Thirty-One Nil”, a new book by British author James Montague, chronicles these extremes of hope, joy and despair -- sometimes very personal, sometimes felt by entire nations.

In the weeks before kick-off in Brazil, we are serializing six extracts from Thirty-One Nil on His book shows why billions of people are addicted to this global game, including many of us at CNN International. We hope it gets you in the mood for the World Cup. Montague spent the best part of three years visiting 25 countries on every continent to gather material for his book. He attended at least 60 games – in fact he says it might have been closer to 70 – as well as countless training sessions.

On one leg of his journey he flew from Rwanda to the United Arab Emirates, then to Australia, New Zealand and the islands of Samoa – then back to the UK. He interviewed hundreds of coaches, players, officials and fans. And he could never plan far ahead. As the qualifying groups on each continent progressed, new heroes emerged with different stories to be told.

In the Pacific Islands, the American Samoa players were looking to lose their tag of the world’s worst team, a label given to them after a record-breaking 31-0 defeat to Australia. Meanwhile in Egypt, the national side had its sights on Brazil even though football was suspended during post-revolutionary violence.

For citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the national team had become a symbol of regeneration and unity after years of war. While in Kosovo, just being recognized as a national team would be a victory. The Eritrean national squad was also new – since the previous team absconded during an away game. And in Brazil itself, crowds who gathered to watch football were then spilling onto the streets to vent their frustrations against their government.

For Montague, the idea for the book came in 2009 as he watched an intense rivalry between Egypt and Algeria where a play-off game had become hijacked by government propaganda and violent hatred.

Not for the first time, football was viewed through the lens of politics, race, religion and culture.

“Football is a mirror on society,” says Montague. “Leaders recognize the power it has over societies and the way it can be used to build nations.”

Montague also says his book is about underdogs. He has special respect for Bob Bradley, the American coach who was appointed to lead the Egyptian national side, and Thomas Rongen, the coach who made a small piece of history in American Samoa. By the time the final whistle blows at the Maracanã stadium in Rio on July 13, there will be more stories of despair and elation. Until then, we hope you enjoy these extracts from “Thirty-One Nil”.

Oh yes, and Montague’s tip to Win the World Cup? Argentina.

Nick Wrenn, editor-in-chief, International

Producer: Matthew Knight, Design: Nural Choudhury, Development: Nav Garcha, Video: Ryan Smith, Editor: John Sinnott, Exec Producer: Ben Wyatt