James Montague, author of Thirty-One Nil, on the forgotten teams of football and the underdogs of this year’s World Cup.

Photo via Flickr user Groundhopping Merseburg

Photo via Flickr user Groundhopping Merseburg

When Bosnia and Herzegovina qualified for its first World Cup in October 2013, the streets of Sarajevo erupted. The victory meant so much more than a ticket to Brazil: the country, still recovering from the wounds of war, was stepping away from the kids’ table.

In his new book, Thirty-One Nil, journalist James Montague recounts Bosnia and Herzegovina’s qualification campaign, along with the campaigns of other World Cup hopefuls. From war-torn Lebanon to revolution in Egypt and riots in Brazil, Montague endured teargas and terror to follow the teams that are so often overlooked as they give everything to gain a coveted spot at the world’s largest sports tournament.

Ahead of Thursday’s kickoff in São Paulo, Eight by Eight’s Kim Lightbody caught up with Montague to discuss the dark horses of this year’s tournament and his experience following football’s forgotten underdogs.

Your book includes a chapter on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s qualification campaign. What do you think it means for the country to have made it to its first-ever World Cup?

It is hugely significant. This is a country, remember, that only came out of a vicious war 19 years ago. Incidentally, just after the Dayton Agreement was agreed, they arranged their first official national team match. One story I was told was that the team didn’t have enough players and had to buy their shirts and shorts from a sport shop in Zagreb!

When The Dragons qualified, 50,000 people were on the streets of Sarajevo. They have some great players too: Miralem Pjanic, Asmir Begovic in goal and Edin Dzeko up front. All of them lived through the war in one way or the other. Dzeko and his family survived the Siege of Sarajevo, for instance. So the national team has always been a powerful symbol of Bosnian identity.  The issue is whether the team can unite the country. Bosnia is a dysfunctional state, almost two states in fact. Bosnia and the Serbian-dominated Republika Srpska. There weren’t many celebrations there and there are only a handful of Bosnian Serbs in the squad. But who knows what will happen when the finals start.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has landed in a group with Argentina and two other underdogs—Iran and Nigeria. Would you say that’s a lucky draw, or could the underdog mentality mean Bosnia will be facing three eager teams?

I think this is the most exciting group. Argentina are many people’s tip to win the whole thing. But the three below them are fairly evenly matched, I believe. I saw some of Nigeria in qualification and at the Confederations Cup last year. They have a great team, champions of Africa too. Smart coach in Stephen Keshi. Iran will be an unknown element to many, but the Iranian league is pretty strong and coach Carlos Queiroz has called up many players who have grown up in Europe and play in the Bundesliga and Premier League. Anyone can get out of that group.

Eight by Eight spoke to Bosnian keeper Asmir Begovic back in March, who said that qualifying for the World Cup felt “surreal.” Having met him and other players of the national team, what do you think their mentality is like going into the tournament?

I met Asmir in Zilina before they played Slovakia last year. They had to win. Greece were breathing down their necks and Bosnia had choked twice before in the playoffs for the last European Championships and World Cup finals. It was quite tense at the team hotel. The players were mooching around upstairs, and downstairs you could hear the Bosnian fans singing sad old songs at the bar, boozing.

The town was full of Bosnians traveling to the game from all across the world. The war had created so many refugees (including Begovic) that wherever the Bosnian team went, thousands and thousands of fans would follow them. They were the home team at almost every match away from home. The team knew they had this weight of expectation on them. But the big one was qualification. They went 1-0 down in that Slovakia game but came back to win 2-1 and qualify outright eventually. That was a huge psychological moment. Most Bosnians I speak to believe the 2nd round is an absolute must. But a good showing will be enough, I think.

Who are the other underdogs in this year’s World Cup?

I’ve already mentioned Iran. It is strange thinking about them as underdogs. They have a thriving league and huge crowds. Iran also produces a lot of talented players, many of whom have played for leading European sides. And who can forget their greatest World Cup moment: beating the US at France ‘98. A million people took to the streets of Tehran after that victory. A million!

Bosnia and Iran are probably the most exotic, although I think the longest shot is Australia. They have an impossible group. I’m just gutted Egypt didn’t make it with Bob Bradley as coach. And in Thirty One Nil I followed Iceland, who came within one game of becoming the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup finals. I still wake up at night sometimes about that.

Turning back to your book: while reporting, you attended football matches amidst revolution in Egypt, protests in Brazil, and other countries teeming with political and social unrest. What was your scariest experience?

Brazil had its moments. I was at the Confederations Cup last year. In Belo Horizonte there was a huge protest before Brazil played Uruguay and the police lost control after tear gassing the protesters outside the stadium. Three hours of looting and burning followed. The mob owned the streets. At one point, the police helicopter had to swoop down to try and use its downdraft to clear the road of protesters.

Egypt too. I was in Cairo after the revolution and there was one trip to Port Said that was terrifying. 72 fans had died at a match a year before and 21 officials and fans from Port Said had been found guilty of it and sentenced to death. There had been big protests, people had died, and then president Morsi announced a curfew the day. I managed to get in and the city was deserted. Apart from a single burning tyre barricade down the main road. That was pretty scary.

Your book also recounts some somber stories, such as the chapter on the Eritrean national football team, in which players use the game as a way to flee their country. What was the hardest experience to endure, emotionally?

The Eritrea story was tough. You knew, meeting the team, that something wasn’t right. Dozens of players had already fled over the past few years so they were being monitored to make sure they didn’t flee either. What must have gone through their heads before the match in Rwanda? But it was the stories of the guys who escaped to Australia. They were still scared. And why wouldn’t they be? They had spent their entire lives in a police state.

Among all the people you met and the things you experienced, who or what was the most inspiring?

Bob Bradley and Jaiyah Saelua. Bradley arrived in Egypt after the revolution, moved into the center of the city, walked with the fans, spoke to them, read, asked questions and managed to rebuild his team after most of his players had seen fans being killed at the stadium tragedy in Port Said. He and his wife handled themselves with class.

Jaiyah is the center back for American Samoa. She became the first transgender player to ever start a World Cup game. Back home in Hawaii she lives as woman, and then plays arguably the most physically demanding position in the men’s game. In a locker room world where homophobia still thrives, she was, is, an inspiration.

How do you view football now, after writing the book? Do you see it as a sport that can unify countries, or does it have an even deeper meaning?

I’ve always believed that football can unite and can also divide. It reflects society almost perfectly. That’s why we write about it in so many different ways. It illuminates the social and the political too. For me , what changed was how I viewed the game as a fan. The game has become more cynical and money driven. But seeing football survive on the edges, and continuing to survive, rekindled a love for the game I thought I had lost.

And lastly, who are you rooting for, personally? Is it your home team of England, or have you taken up the cause of an underdog nation?

England, of course. But I’ll be following Bosnia and Iran too. Who wouldn’t want to see another US Iran match up? Other than Thomas Dooley, course…

Thirty-One Nil: On the Road with Football’s Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey by James Montague can be purchased here. Published by Bloomsbury USA, May 2014.

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