New York Times: A 48 team World Cup

22 Bhutan's winning goal
Bhutan making it to the next round of 2018 World Cup qualification. ©James Montague

It is probably quite obvious by now that I often write about football teams who don’t win very many matches. Thirty One Nil covered 2014 World Cup qualification from the perspective of the national teams who will likely never qualify for a finals.

So the up and coming reform of the World Cup, an expansion to 48 teams, has started an interesting debate about the minnows in world football. Does the expansion help smaller nations to dream big, as expansion of the European Championships did? Or is it anti-meritocratic, giving away places in the finals to teams who do not deserve a place? Or does the expansion effectively ruin the drama and intrigue of qualification?

I revisited some of the people I met on my journey around the world writing Thirty One Nil as well as others, including the president of the Bhutan football federation (whose national team played, and won, its first ever World Cup qualification match in March 2015), and asked them.

The result was this piece for the New York Times, featuring Bob Bradley and Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic.

BBC World Service: Kosovo’s World Cup journey so far

A fan with a Kosovo/Albania split flag before Switzerland played Albania in a 2014 World Cup qualification match ©James Montague

For the past few years I’ve been following the ups and downs of Kosovar football and the attempts by their football federation to gain recognition in FIFA and UEFA.

Since last year’s surprise recognition, the national team of Kosovo have embarked on qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Here’s a 15 minute radio documentary on the journey so far, from the first game against Finland, to their last against Turkey. Qualification begins again in March 2017.



BBC World Service: The Dragons on top of the world

Happy New Year!

2015 was full of some pretty bad news when it came to football, indeed, sports governance in general. But just as FIFA was beginning to implode under the weight of accusation, qualification for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia began in Asia, just eight months after Germany’s World Cup triumph in Rio.

The twelve worst ranked teams were drawn into six, two legged matches. Clearly the pick of the round (at least, the pick for someone who has written a book about international underdogs) was Sri Lanka v Bhutan.

I had briefly considered trying to get to see Timor Leste v Mongolia, given that it was both one of the most unusual ties in world football and the fact that it would technically be the first to kick off.

But instead I headed off to Sri Lanka, and then to the isolated and little known mountain kingdom of Bhutan, for what turned out to be some of the most memorable matches I’d ever seen.

Bhutan were ranked dead last by FIFA and were playing their first ever World Cup match. This was a country that once held the world record for the biggest ever defeat (20-0, v Kuwait) until Australia beat American Samoa 31-0 in 2001. This was also a country that had a policy of isolationism that saw TV banned until the late 1990s.

It was a pretty special few weeks, and I recorded the trip for the BBC World Service’s World Football show.

You can listen to the 20 minute New Year special here.

Copa90: From Syrian war to German wunderkind

A few weeks back I wrote a story for the New York Times about Mohammed Jaddou, the captain of Syria’s under 17 national team. At least he was. After captaining his team to a semi final finish in the 2014 AFC Championships (which qualified Syria for FIFA’s Under 17 World Cup finals in Chile next month), Mohammed fled the country, through the mountains of northern Syria into Turkey. From there he took a terrifying journey across sea in the hands of people smugglers, before being rescued off Sicily. He’s now in Germany, dreaming of Real Madrid.

I went back to Oberstaufen, the small town in southern Germany where Mohammed lives with his father and uncle, and made this film for Copa90 about his life, his escape and his hopes for the future.

Thirty One Nil wins Football Book of the Year Award

Haiti 2 Getting the stadium ready1 Brazil Girl before Confeds final5 American SamoaAll photos © James Montague

June saw the 2015 British Sports Book of the Year awards take place at Lords in London. Thirty-One Nil had been nominated for for the TalkSport Football Book of the Year. I’d assumed it had zero chance, as it was up against some pretty strong competition. Plus I saw that Paul Hawksbee and Andy Jacobs — of TalkSport’s Hawksbee and Jacobs fame — were handing out the award.

When Thirty One Nil first came out I went on the show to talk about the book, minnows and the football loving public’s adoration of underdogs. I wouldn’t exactly call the following discussion a spat as such, but we had a proper discussion about whether minnows like San Marino should ever be allowed to play the likes of England or whether those games are a waste of time.

So, I was content with the free bar. But somehow it won, which was a shock as I didn’t have a speech planned. A massive thanks to the Football Writers’ Association for picking the book from an amazing field. Plus to Andy and Paul. The discussion carried on afterwards, on camera. Here’s the highlights of the awards show, which went out on Sky Sports. The football award comes on at around 11 minutes.

Monocle: Eritrea and the Mediterranean Crisis

RwandaPhoto © James Montague

In recent months I’ve spent time documenting the migrant and refugee crisis currently afflicting most of country’s on the Mediterranean rim, with implications far beyond the shoreline.

Over a quarter of the migrants crossing the Med (where nearly 2,000 have drowned this year already) are from Eritrea, a tiny country on the east coast of Africa that is perhaps, alongside North Korea, the worst place in the world to be a human.

For my book Thirty One Nil I wrote a chapter about Eritrea. Over 50 international players have fled whilst on international duty as it is the only chance they have of leaving the country safely. Many of the players I met have now found safety in places like Australia and the US. Last year I visited the town in The Netherlands where 17 members of the team and the team’s doctor had been resettled after absconding after a tournament in Uganda.

Monocle radio did a special episode of The Foreign Desk podcast where I talk about the conditions the players face, their escape, and their fear of retribution.

The New York Times: Bhutan shock the world

The view  inside Bhutan's national stadium stadiumDSC_00034 Training
All photos © James Montague

After watching Bhutan beat Sri Lanka 1-0, I travelled to Bhutan to watch the second match five days later. The journey was a story in itself: From Colombo to Malaysia to Thailand to Paro Airport in Bhutan.

Bhutan is a tough country to get into. Tourists are charged a minimum spend of $250 a day each but the World Cup qualification match gave us an opportunity to get into the country and see the capital Thimphu for ourselves.

There was a welcoming party at the airport as the whole country seemed to be gripped by football fever. Rarely does Bhutan make international headlines but The Dragon’s victory had made everyone incredibly proud.

More than 20,000 people turned up at the national stadium in Thimphu to see Bhutan famously win 2-1 and make it to the next round.

Here’s my New York Times piece on the match, and the visit to a monastery with the team hours before kick off.