Football in the war zone
by James Montague
Reviewed by Mike Ticher
From WSC 261 November 2008
Let’s get the title out of the way first. It’s a bit – how can I put it – derivative? And it doesn’t really tell you what the book is about, which is the Middle East. James Montague travelled to a dozen countries to explore their football culture, or at least taste it, in trips that sometimes lasted only a few days.
That’s not to denigrate his work. Even the most diligent follower of international football would be hard-pressed to tell you much about the challenges facing the game in Yemen or Syria, or even Israel and Iran. Given how little has been written about the game in the region, Montague’s unsentimental snapshots are an excellent starter.
He has the journalistic virtues of sticking his nose in where it’s not necessarily wanted, asking straight questions and giving a fair hearing to opinions that are often diametrically, not to mention violently, at odds. Sometimes his conclusions are glib, but he seems to have a pretty firm grasp of the intricate cross-currents of religion, ethnicity and nationalism.
The best chapters, as with all such books, are those that offer unexpected insights into politics through football. The difficulties of organising a league in the Palestinian territories and the appalling obstacles for its national women’s team reveal as much about the deep gashes within that society as its alienation from Israel. Things are not much easier in Lebanon, where the only club with decent facilities is the one backed by Hezbollah, and fans dodge traffic on a motorway to glimpse the big Christian derby – played behind closed doors.
Montague’s sketches effectively illustrate one of the enduring truths of world football: that tolerance begins on the field. Kurds, Shias and Sunnis come together to play for Iraq, Fatah and Hamas supporters for Palestine (when they are allowed to), and even Arabs and Jews in Israeli teams. It is the fans, boxed in by religion, politics and economics, for whom identity is everything.
Montague is less successful when he follows the overworn path of describing his daily journalism work as though it was the story. His fruitless search at the 2006 World Cup for Iranian protesters and Saudi fans of any description is tedious. And it would take a much better writer to make an engaging anecdote out of failing to interview Henri Michel in Cairo. He is not helped by his editors, who allow through all kinds of doubtful claims (surely the “balding masseuse” working on a near-naked Ali Daei in his Tehran hotel room was really a masseur?).
Montague’s Jack-the-lad persona occasionally crosses the line from tolerable to jarring: a hotel manager in Yemen under the influence of the drug khat is described as “totally fucked”; Egyptian sales techniques are “a little like watching a schizophrenic trying to get a date”.
Still, it is worth persevering. There may be few signs that the players of the Middle East are about to conquer the world, but their often tragic struggles deserve a hearing. The Iraqi coach of the battered Lebanese club Racing Beirut laments: “We have gifted players, but the situation is ruined here by politics.” That at least is something everyone from Iran to Israel can agree on.