Thirty-One Nil – James Montague

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.

Back cover.

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)

STARS: 2.5/5
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.

Find Thirty-One Nil on Amazon

The Nowhere Men – Michael Calvin

The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin is a deep dive into the world of football scouting. Calvin casts a sincere eye on to that slowly contracting world wherein the attrition is high and the payoffs are rare. Calvin’s polished and insightful writing takes us right smack-bang into the world of the beleaguered scout, who is increasingly becoming marginalised in the modern game.

The highlights of The Nowhere Men are certainly the conversations Calvin has with the scouts who have ‘put the miles in’ over decades in the business. Mel Johnson, Steve Jones, and especially John Griffin are warmly given the soapbox to give their take on their trade and reminisce on old glories. Of particular note is the conversation between Barry Lloyd, Allan Gemmell, and Pat Holland (the transcript of which is an entire chapter); Steve Jones’ scouting report on a Colchester side; and John Griffin’s catharsis at the end. These men are in their twilight, fighting against the technology that will eventually supplant them. Their stories alone could justify a spin-off series.

“Whether it is watching a park game on a Sunday morning, or Bromley, or Dartford, or Manchester United or Liverpool, you’ve got to be there. You’ve got to put the miles in. You’ve got to be there, because if you ain’t wearing those tyres out, you ain’t going to find that one.”

Allan Gemmell on scouting (pg. 147)

The final third of the book gets a bit ragged as Calvin spreads himself too thin and loses focus. The usual references to sabermetrics and Moneyball feature here, as well as the pervasive influence of statistics and video scouting. There are tenuous asides to American sport, too. Clearly the focus of the book is on the ‘nowhere men’ and their struggle to stay in the game. In this section, Calvin neither does justice to the scouts, nor the complex world of sabermetrics in sport.

There is no doubt about Calvin’s writing—it is refined, street-smart, and eminently readable. There are some memorable flourishes that may draw a smile or ire from the reader, some examples being:

You can’t create a love letter out of numbers, or express beauty in an algorithm. There’s no sensuality in a sine curve, or warmth in a heat map. The neuron boogie, which causes tiny hairs to elevate on the back of a scout’s neck, is a timeless tune.

The art of scouting (pg. 371)

The Nowhere Men was first published in 2013, and the references to then-tyros and youth-level starlets have naturally dated. Raheem Sterling, John Swift, Jeremie Boga, and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill have all had varied levels of success, yet readers will undoubtedly enjoy the anecdotes and predictions laid down by the scouts about the above players and others. The Nowhere Men is sprinkled liberally with these little gems.

Modern football is an unforgiving shouting match wherein the little voices are drowned out. However, upon reading The Nowhere Men, the reader may come to realise that within the din lies the roar of the ‘mileage men’ as they rage against the dying of their profession. It is important to listen to that roar.


“Whether it is watching a park game on a Sunday morning, or Bromley, or Dartford, or Manchester United or Liverpool, you’ve got to be there. You’ve got to put the miles in. You’ve got to be there, because if you ain’t wearing those tyres out, you ain’t going to find that one.” (pg. 147) (Allan Gemmell)

“The Nowhere Men were an increasingly endangered species, but no one had found the magic bullet, the ultimate statistic which proved, beyond doubt, a player’s worth from a spread sheet rather than a stream of consciousness, scrawled on the back of an envelope by a scout who felt football in his bones.” (pg. 172)

STARS: 4/5

FULL TIME SCORE: 3-1 winners. The scout—who brought two of the game’s debutants to the club—is halfway across the country watching another game.

Find The Nowhere Men on Amazon