“This has been a life-changing experience for me. But I don’t know if soccer has a place within me after this tournament. I just want to focus on dance school.”
That quote came from Jaiyah Saelua, a defender from American Samoa after the island lost its World Cup qualification tournament against rival Samoa. That quote to me perfectly summarizes the book Thirty One Nil: On the Road with Football’s Outsiders by James Montague. Released this month by Bloomsbury Press, the book follows the “outsiders” or those nations who fail to qualify for the World Cup. These nations range from American Samoa, who are not really a nation but are one of the worst ranked teams to enter qualification, to Iceland who come within a breath of making it to Brazil.
In a sense, Saelua is not the typical footballer discussed in the book. She is actually the first transgender person to play in a World Cup qualifier (as detailed in the book) and she is a part-time student rather than a professional footballer. But her statement that life will go on comes across in this book often, especially with the smaller teams. While American Samoa, Tahiti, and San Marino revel in the glory of playing in a qualification and having the faint hope of making it to Brazil, realistically they are enjoying the moment and that is all they can expect. That’s why that quote stuck with me, because over the next month we will hear countless interviews with players whose whole lives have been focused on the World Cup. In a sense, this is the outlier and not the norm.
Not all countries detailed in the book are composed of semi-pros who are looking to enjoy their experience; about half of the countries Montague visits are using qualification for geopolitical purposes. He spends time with Bob Bradley in Egypt and shares how the American coach is using his national team to try and hold together a fractured nation that actually fractures multiple times in the brief period he is in charge. Montague watches a match with Eritrea, a national team whose players defected en mass after the last tournament and shows the doubt whether the players will even board the bus this time. Jordan and Palestine are two teams that hold the hope of unity in their hands as they try to qualify against all odds.
Thus this book has two separate storylines running through it (the too small and the too politically rift) but Montague ties them together under the common theme of the outsiders. All of these teams are hoping to be the World Cup’s underdog, the one team that no one expected to qualify but are now the tournament’s feel good story. Not surprisingly none of them do but he adds a great element of drama to his storytelling that makes you wonder what will happen.
Where the book goes off the rails is towards the end when it becomes too much about geopolitical issues. He spends too many pages talking about the protests in Brazil outside the Confederations Cup (off topic) and too much time discussing Middle Eastern politics (too much unnecessary detail). But the first 150 pages are absolute gold and help carry the book towards the end.
Over the next four weeks we will hear numerous stories of the best players and the best teams. This book is a good read to show that such players and teams represent a small part of the global FIFA system, a part that is of the highest quality but may not actually be the best stories out there.