James Montague’s Thirty-One Nil is a sweeping travelogue detailing the fortunes of a number of national teams as they battle through qualifiers in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup. These teams all share ‘outsider’ status in some respect, whether it be for political reasons or because of their lowly status. Author James Montague teases out the difficulties national teams such as—but not restricted to—Haiti, Egypt, Lebanon, American Samoa, and Eritrea faced in putting a team on the park.
Travelogue, geopolitical essay, adventure story—Thirty-One Nil can be described as all of these. Montague covers riots in Egypt and Brazil; questions Sepp Blatter about Kosovo; goes fishing with players of the Antigua and Barbuda national team; gets drunk in a seedy Curacao bar; and even gets tear gassed and shocked out of sense by a stun grenade. Montague writes from the edge of his seat, and has duly earned the plaudit of ‘The Indiana Jones of soccer writing’ from Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl.
Montague’s writing shines when he narrows his focus on minnows such as American Samoa, the Caribbean nations, and (the then-lowly) Iceland. The stories of Nicky Salapu (the goalkeeper on the losing end of the 31-0 scoreline to Australia in 2001) and Jaiyah Saelua make for great reading, and Iceland’s goalkeeper-cum-filmmaker Hannes Halldórsson is given a platform in Thirty-One Nil long before he made a name for himself in the 2018 World Cup.
“I feel like I’ve been let out of prison. I want my son to grow up and don’t want kids chasing him around saying your dad lost 31-0…but if we win this tournament, we will get to Brazil no doubt! Even if we qualify for Brazil, and I don’t make it there, I would die a happy person.”Nicky Salapu on qualification (pg. 100)
Antigua and Barbuda’s search for descendent talent in England is also worth mentioning, as well as Bob Bradley’s challenges in guiding Egypt (which features a young Mohamed Salah, and national icon Mohamed Aboutrika) through the qualifiers. Although the state of the national setups in 2014 are not reflective of the setups at the time of reading (2019), Thirty-One Nil nevertheless echoes the problems that face national teams in the present day due to complex political and social issues.
Montague has certainly chalked up the air miles in Thirty-One Nil. The book has a ‘written on the fly’ feel to it, and as such the writing often lacks cohesion and the chapters read like despatches from a coldly-observing foreign correspondent. The political exposition has a place in the book, but could have done with some pruning to break up overly-long paragraphs.
Some passages come across as insensitive and flippant, such as Montague comparing Haiti’s airport to ground zero of a “zombie apocalypse”, and the use of “bloodbath”, “sacrificial meat”, and “mauling” to describe unflattering score lines alongside chapters covering the Rwandan genocide and the Port Said Stadium riot.
Montague is a daring writer and intrepid traveller, and he has a talent for throwing himself into the moment. However, in travelling all over the world to gather his stories, he has perhaps spread himself too thin. As such, he doesn’t do full justice to one singular format, whether it be travelogue, geopolitical essay, or adventure story. There is undoubted quality in the pages of Thirty-One Nil, however a narrower focus that eschews historical and political exposition would have better served the main characters in this book, and their footballing lives as ‘outsiders’.
When it is time for the ‘extreme underdogs’ of the US Virgin Islands to begin training, they start by running the length of the pitch, back and forth, back and forth. They take shooting practice next. No one manages to hit the target. Balls balloon over the goal, or end up near the corner flag. The maintenance men go about their work, painting and repainting the terrace steps in red, yellow, and blue, only stopping to retrieve any balls that land close to them.On the US Virgin Islands’ upcoming qualifier against Haiti (pg. 50)
UNDER 20: A gritty footballing travelogue, geopolitical essay, and adventure story rolled into one—yet lacking a unifying flavour.
FULL-TIME SCORE: A 2-1 loss away from home. Away attacks were fully-fledged and brave, yet sporadic.