Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Thirty One Nil - Interview with James Montague

Following on from my review of Thirty One Nil last year, I was pleased to be afforded the chance to interview the author James Montague (@JamesPiotr) with the paperback release of the book by Bloomsbury Sport.

- What is the appeal of travelling to watch football around the world?

Doesn't everyone want to do that?! For me, the highest form of the game was international football. From a young age, before the internet, it was a window on the world. I vividly remember my Panini sticker album from Mexico 86 and it was glorious. The Iraq team! They all had these tremendous moustaches. So I grew up fascinated by the rest of the world and was lucky enough to get a job in the Middle East in my mid 20s, and started going to local games.It all started from that.

- Do you see it as an alternative or escape from the mainstream of Sky Sports coverage?
I can't stand what's happening to the game. The Sky-ification of football. It's an idiotic gentrification that is stripping football of its identity and will, eventually, kill the goose that laid the golden egg. You don't have to travel far to find the game's true soul, but for me travelling to different countries, understanding them through football, shows me that the game as we all remember it, the game we fell in love with, is still out there. It's messier sometimes, and fucked up, but who wants everything to be perfect? 

- What was your total mileage?
Christ knows. But if I wanted to offset my carbon usage I'd have to replant a forest the size of East Anglia.

- Were you afraid of anywhere you did travel to?
Yeah, there were times when I was properly scared. Egypt post revolution. When it was all falling apart. I remember being in Port Said, after the announcement that 20 people were being sentenced to death for their role in 72 Al Ahly fans killed at a  match in the city. Protests broke out there, dozens were shot dead, a curfew had been put on the city. I managed to get in just before the curfew started. It was chaos and terrifying. It seemed so far removed from football, but you have to follow a story all the way. Or you've failed.

- Would you visit these places if there was not a football match taking place (I have the same belief with cricket, would I travel to the sub-continent if a test match was not happening)?
Luckily, we live in a world where a football match is taking place in every country on earth every day. So there is nowhere I could possibly go where a football match isn't going on. Expect perhaps Antarctica.  

- Do you feel the minnows are closing the gap on the world powers, will the extra teams in Euro 2016 close it further?
Yeah. There was a lot of criticism of the expansion, but it has proved to be a genius move. Sport lives or dies on competitive balance so what was seen as a weakening of the tournament has motivated teams to up their games. Every game counts now because every team believes they have a chance. Hope is important. Look at Armenia, Albania, San Marino even. Everyone benefits from this system.  

- Why are smaller nations getting better?
Hope is a big factor. But football is getting smaller. You can watch any game in the world at any time online. Football across the world is becoming increasingly professionalised. That will improve hugely in the next 20 years. But the main reason some countries are making huge strides is money. Iceland is a case in point. They narrowly missed out on being the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup. It would be a record that would never have been broken. They invested heavily on indoor halls, for their harsh winter, and in training up coaches. They are lucky. They are one of the richest nations on earth so can afford it. But it shows what resources can achieve.  

- What are your thoughts on Russia and Qatar hosting the World Cup?

There has been so little scrutiny of Russia's World Cup. There is a very strong case that it should be moved elsewhere given Putin's actions in Ukraine. Qatar is little trickier. I was pleased the Middle East won the chance to host it. it is an important region that loves football. And having lived in the Gulf i wasn't at all surprised they won. Qatar and the UAE have been perusing these mega events for years. What is clear is that there is some very important scrutiny of Qatar including the kafala system. I started visiting worker camps when I lived in Dubai, in 2005. The treatment of humans in them is a disgrace. And the UAE has zero interest in reforming it. Qatar on the other hand has been forced to confront it. It is a far more reform minded place than the UAE or Saudi Arabia. So for that reason alone I hope they don't lose it. Kafalla is one of the world's great evils and if the World Cup can in any way help bring about its timely demise then I can live with a winter World Cup in 2022.

- What are you working on currently?
I'm typing this out in an Irish pub in Macedonia, covering the protests out here. I've moved to Belgrade and working on my next book, about money in football. But first I've got to get out of this god damn pub. They've had the same CD on for four hours now and if I have to here that Ke$ha song again I might kill someone.