Wednesday, 23 October 2013

When Friday Comes: James Montague Q&A

When Friday Comes is a book by respected football journalist, James Montague, who has written for the New York Times, World Soccer, CNN and The Blizzard.  The book is a collection of Montague's travails around the Middle East from Egypt to Israel following football, and how in spite of political differences football appears to be a unifying item of personal pleasure for many people across the vast region.
To help support the release of the book in hardback, Mr. Montague in his very hectic schedule afforded me the opportunity to ask him some questions about the book and his time in the Gulf, the rise of football and the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar in 2022.
Where did the idea of the book come from?
The book idea came shortly after the first time I arrived in the Middle East. I moved to Dubai in 2004. It was quite a strange place when I got there. Blisteringly hot, all these clash of cultures and values. It was a booming totem to neo-liberalism wrapped in a strong Islamic culture. It was pretty disorientating at first. But football was something that very clearly permeated most strata of societies in the Middle East. So when I travelled to other countries in the region I'd watch the local league, watch the national teams, read about the intrigues and controversies of the game. It was fascinating but also gave me a window on the region that I think very few other areas of life can offer. I'd have never known about the schism, if that isn't too harsh a word, between the Jewish Ashkenaism and Mizrahim communities in Israel. Or the pronounced sectarian divisions in Lebanon if it wasn't by first looking at football in those countries. It was the perfect mirror in many ways. 
The book covers a period of eight nine years. A version came out in 2008 but I decided to essentially write a sequel as the region changed forever thanks to Arab Spring and also the economic explosion in the Gulf. On the one hand you had this incredible movement for change that swept away much of the old order in some countries, and football, especially in Egypt, played a part. So it wasn't just a mirror of understanding any more. It was actually an agent for change in itself. People don't like to see football in that way. But we look at art and culture in such terms. But why not football?  

Is the sport growing abundantly in that region?
It was huge when I got there. You have derbies in Egypt and Iran that pull 100,000 fans. Saudi Arabia too. In Israel you'll have ten per cent of a city's population turn out to see their team. What is changing now is that money from the region is changing the game in the West. Qatar and the UAE especially are reshaping the financial aspects of top flight European football. It will be an interesting few years to come. 
You seemed to encounter some really scary moments, did you ever fear for your safety?
The Middle East is seen as an alien planet. But I was met with kindness and compassion almost everywhere I went. You begin to see things as they are. The issue of Islam's influence on Western society is one that is gaining momentum. There is a fear of this alien concept sweeping the land. But when you spend time in the region you see something different. People aren't that different. They want jobs and a family, they want to get married, get laid, get wasted. We see a conservative, crazy place. But most of the places I've been to are no more conservative than Christian societies in the 20th century. These are ancient civilizations that had values of tolerance and multiculturalism whilst we in England were still building mud huts. The great game of competing empires has given rise to militant Islam and emasculated many countries in the region from having a functioning middle class and political class. We are surprised with the problems Egypt is experiencing in reconciling its new democratic order. But we propped up Mubarak, who liquidated any reasonable, liberal, left of centre opposition. Are we surprised that all is left is the Army and the Brotherhood?
Where you in Egypt around the time of the Arab Spring?
Much of the new book follows the exploits of the Ahlawy, the Al Ahly Ultras of Cairo's biggest club. They played quite a role in the revolution, and after it too. There was the incident at Port Said where 72 of their fans were killed after a game. I wasn't there but the aftermath was pretty dicey. The scariest was when the initial verdict that sentenced 21 Al Masry fans to death for their role in the killings. I was with the Ahlawy in Cairo and there was wild celebration. 15,000 fans were there, firing guns in the air. But the people of Port Said were livid. Police shot 30 people dead when they stormed the prison the AL Masry fans were being held. President Morsi announced a curfew and I went down to Port Said on the last bus before the curfew fell. The city was deserted. Empty. It was a ghost town. Except for one street where protesters were fighting with the police over burning barricades. I was cowering behind a Red Crescent ambulance, hearing gun fire wondering how I had got there. That night there was a march to break the curfew. It ended with a protester being shot dead and a gun battle followed. I remember having to get back to my hotel, hiding from car to car past the gun fire. That was pretty scary.  

Which country was the scariest? Which country was the safest in comparison?
It's not a country but Gaza was pretty malevolent. I went there in 2009, not long after the Israelis had bombed it even further back in to the dark ages. Journalists were being kidnapped but Hamas was in control so there was order laid atop chaos. I felt it was cursory. And it was also a dark, miserable place. It left its mark on me.   The safest? No question Oman. It is beautiful. In many Gulf countries, if you can call Oman strictly a Gulf country, it is difficult to meet the local population. But Omanis are warm and eager to meet you. I have a favourite pool bar I go to in Seeb where I would get hammered in almost every game, drink tins of lager with my Omani opponents and talk about life in the country.  Although sometimes they can be a little too warm. I have never been propositioned by so many men my life!

Where you surprised that FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and that region in particular?
In a way, no. FIFA is about taking the power centre away from European football and I was not surprised at all. Qatar played the game better than anyone else. It remains to be seen whether FIFA's investigation into the bids will find anything. But I wasn't surprised at all.
Will the 2022 tournament be moved or taken away from them?
I suspect that it will. There's too much money at stake for FIFA. Moving it to Winter is a no no. Platini, UEFA and the top clubs want January-February but that can't take place because of the Winter Olympics. November December is Blatter's choice, but that clashes with the Champions League. That leaves having it in Qatar in July which, unless they can show vast improvements in the cooling tech they promised, won't happen, or moving it to May-June. Which is an option. But again you feel like there are some people who actually hope that Qatar will have been found to have done something bad so it makes it easier (ie, won't cause massive legal issues). It is being used as  pawn in the up and coming 2015 FIFA presidential vote. It will be clearer after that.

What country or continent are you covering next?
My next book is called Thirty One Nil. I've been following the underdogs as they try to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. It has been quite a journey that started in 2011. From Palestine, Tajikistan, Haiti, Rwanda, Samoa, the US. So, pretty much every continent is covered!

Are you the Michael Palin of football?
Well, I wouldn't say that although it is kind of you to say. I always wanted to write football books that appealed to people who loved the game but also those who have never seen the beauty in it before. I hope journey helps to show that in some small way. 

What advice would you give to young writers and bloggers of football to get more recognition and get noticed?
Get out there. Get into the smoke and the heat. There are so many people writing blogs and analysis. What journalist are doing less because of the financial restrictions on the trade is travelling to stories. Get your self there. See it with your own eyes. And you will have the stories no one else has.
When Friday Comes is out in hardback from DeCoubertin Books (@deCoubertin at £16.99 RRP but £7.20 on Kindle through
James Montague can be followed on twitter @JamesPiotr

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