The last game I ever bought and played from the FIFA series was its now-iconic 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. I was infatuated with it, but not because it allowed me to play as the top-ranking nations in the world. Rather, it gave me a licence to explore international football’s underdogs outside of the mainstream. James Montague’s Thirty-One Nil brings the stories of these minnows to life. Every page you turn makes you feel that you have learnt something new about the side of football you don’t usually see.
Funnily enough, I read Thirty-One Nil during my downtime in Qatar, where I was attending the 2022 World Cup. I was lucky enough to see England’s matches as we tried (and sadly failed) to bring the World Cup home, but knew little of the qualifying journey of our opponents. A bit of research shows Iran put 28 goals past Cambodia in two games, the USA scraped through their group despite defeats against Costa Rica and Panama, whilst Senegal defeated Egypt on penalties in a notoriously tough African qualifying section. Montague’s book goes back to qualifying for the 2014 tournament in Brazil, shining a light on some of the more interesting stories as the 203 entrants got whittled down to the final 32.
Montague makes sure to cover the complete story of qualification, beginning with the opening game, which saw Belize defeat Montserrat 5-2. Montserrat’s goals were scored by Jay’Lee Hodgson of Clifton All Whites in the English Central Midlands Football League (South Division). The Caribbean British Overseas Territory have come to rely on the children of émigrés after volcanic eruptions in the late 1990s forced most of the island’s population to leave. Now having improved from their previous position at the bottom of FIFA’s world rankings, their current squad includes players from a variety of English clubs including the likes of Chatham Town, Garstang, Wealdstone and Maidenhead United. The last game of 2014 World Cup Qualifying saw Uruguay seal their place against Jordan in the second leg in Montevideo. Montague does not cover that game, but he was at the first leg in Amman where the South Americans took a 5-0 lead and virtually assured themselves of their finals place in Brazil.
There are plenty of fascinating stories along the way. A personal favourite was Montague’s trip to American Samoa, who broke a run of 30 straight defeats (including the infamous 31-0 defeat against Australia in 2001 that gave the book its name) to record their first-ever win with victory over Tonga. The goalkeeper from that 31-0 defeat was the same man who valiantly kept out Tonga ten years later to help secure this landmark moment. There was also another interesting bit of history to American Samoa’s success. Star player Jaiyah Saelua became the first-ever transgender player to start a World Cup match, ironically being awarded the ‘man of the match’ award after the game. Saelua is from a biologically male third sex in Samoan culture called the Fa’afafine. This group comprises people who are born male but feel female and are attracted to males. Saelua later began medically transitioning to female during qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
If you’re into international politics, you’ll certainly enjoy Thirty-One Nil. Relations between countries linked to football are a common theme, from the issues of Palestine hosting games in the West Bank to a meeting between Croatia and Serbia with the wounds of the Yugoslav Wars still raw. One particularly interesting chapter covered Eritrea’s visit to Rwanda in the first stage of the African qualifiers. Conditions in authoritarian Eritrea, where press freedom is lower only in North Korea, are desperately poor, with the government’s human rights record amongst the worst in the world. Every year, millions try and escape, to the point where the national football team have been withdrawn from competition to stop players trying to escape and claim asylum on their travels. It was a surprise then when Eritrea actually turned up to their game against Rwanda, and even more so when all the players made it home again. However, during a visit to Uganda for the CECAFA Cup a year later, 17 of the travelling party disappeared and were later granted asylum.
The stories I’ve covered in this brief article merely scratch the surface of what Montague covers across the whole of Thirty-One Nil. It’s easy to lose yourself in the various places Montague explores, discovering new and exotic parts of the world. If you’re one of the many people who find the international break boring, give this a read instead. It may well change your perspective.
About Johnnie Lowery
Johnnie is a football writer. His first book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. With strong reviews from the likes of Jeremy Vine and Jacqui Oatley, it is selling well online. His second book, Match Fit, explores mental health in football. It looks to raise mental health awareness and is inspired by Lowery’s own struggles as a teenager, when he did not understand why he was feeling down.