Thirty-One Nil by James Montague
The guys gather for the second-ever edition of the ETR Book Club to dissect Thirty-One Nil by James Montague, the World Cup qualification stories of the teams that never had a chance to make it to Brazil but tried their damndest anyway. Montague joins the show to discuss the book, while former MLSer Bobby Warshaw adds his input with insight gained in the Swedish second division.
More than likely, we'll never go to Palestine. Same for Rwanda. Ditto for Eritrea, Curacao and American Samoa. Fortunately, James Montague did it all for us – the long flights, dodgy lodging and moments of potentially life-threatening danger. Even better, his flowing, colorful and, above all, compelling prose make you feel like you were there while the never-have-beens of world soccer try to make their mark.
Yes, Thirty-One Nil is a book about soccer. But it's the world Montague views through the lense of the game that's so fascinating. How has an age-old rivalry between Hungary and Romania manifested itself on a soccer pitch? Why do Caribean nations turn to players who've never stepped on the island to fuel their World Cup dreams? What's life like at the fringe of African soccer, where rules are bent or not followed at all?
Read it for the stories. Read it for the history. Read it to better understand humanity. If you're a fan of the beautiful game, Thirty-One Nil should jump to the top of your list.
All of us have those moments when soccer leaves us disillusioned. Well, a chapter from Thirty-One Nil will remind you why you fell in love with the sport to begin with. James Montague takes you to corners of the soccer world you'll likely never get to see, where soccer is more than just wins or losses. The matches are a reflection of each nation's people, history and society, which Montague weaves into his storytelling, leaving you personally enriched after each one of his trips (told in 15 distinct, self-contained chapters).
The title of the book is deceiving: You'd think it's about the on-field struggles of the world's minnows in their futile attempt to stumble up the soccer ladder. Far from it. Bob Bradley and Thomas Rongen aside, these are the human-interest stories and characters that mainstream media largely ignored in the build-up to Brazil. From Lebanon to Haiti, Rwanda to Albania, you'll come away feeling how little you really know about the sport.
Thirty-One Nil is so many different books rolled into one that just about any reader can find something that resonates. It is a travel book about remote forgotten corners of the world, a history book about conflicts and immigration, tales of unique personalities and ulitmately, of course, a soccer book.
After reading James Montague’s first book about soccer in the Middle East – When Friday Comes: Football, War and Revolution in the Middle East – I had a valuable reference for both his writing and reporting style. His greatest skill is weaving together first-person stories while using soccer as a prism to explore history, conflict and culture. Clearly, Montague is able to connect personally with the people he encounters, coaxing out the details that make the book such a fun read.
Whether you you want to learn more about the Eritrean totalitarian government or Kosovo’s battle for statehood, Montague delivers. And he makes you think in the process, as your view and opinion of the beautiful game flip-flops. Can soccer save the world? Or is a blight on society, a place for dark corners of humanity to flourish? Perhaps it is both, but like Montague, you come away from this book with a renewed love for the game's universalism and purity.
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Eight World Cups by George Vecsey:
New York Times veteran soccer writer George Vecsey is the author of "Eight World Cups," as in the eight tournaments he's covered. Tune in to the special Book Club podcast where we talk to Vecsey himself and then order the book here.
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Meet the ETR team
Andrew Wiebe is the host and producer of ExtraTime Radio and a new media editor for MLSsoccer.com. He previously covered Sporting KC, once scored an unintentional goal from midfield and tries to bring an analytical mind to the beautiful game. Weekend center back, history junkie and Jayhawk.
Simon Borg is a senior editor and on-air analyst for MLSsoccer.com, and the original creator of the "Kick Off" on MLSsoccer.com. He loves organic strawberry jam and once pushed a big kid into a puddle while playing soccer in Malta. And he would do it again right now.
David Gass is an assistant producer and sound engineer for ExtraTime Radio. Originally from New York City, he attended Northeastern University in Boston and is currently questioning his choice of part-time employment.