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FIFA’s Sepp Blatter: Not that bad. And other things you didn’t know about the World Cup.

FIFA President Sepp BlatterFIFA President Sepp Blatter
FIFA president Sepp BlatterAlexander Hassenstein - FIFA via Getty Images

Image (1) 250-words-logo.png for post selects the most compelling short essays, anecdotes, and author interviews from “250 Words,” a site developed by Simon & Schuster to explore the best new business books—wherever they may be published.

For this installment, 250 Words’ Sam McNerney sits down with James Montague, a British journalist and author who writes for the New York Times, CNN, GQ and World Soccer. Sports Illustrated described him as “the Indiana Jones of soccer writing.” Thirty-One Nil, his second book, is published by Bloomsbury. Sam speaks with James about what it’s like to play for Eritrea, corruption in FIFA, and who will win the World Cup.

Thirty one Nil

McNerney: Let’s start with the title. Why “Thirty-One Nil”?

Montague: It is the game that inspired me to write the book in the first place. In 2001 Australia beat American Samoa 31-0 in a World Cup match. It was a world record and became worldwide news. I remember seeing a sped up video of it. Two things stuck with me. The first was the coach who said that he “didn’t know why they wanted to score so many goals.” The second was the American Samoa goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, face down in the grass. I’m a goalkeeper myself, and I have played on mostly bad teams, so I knew exactly how he felt. I’ve been obsessed with that game ever since. What happened to the players? And, most importantly, why would American Samoa continue playing qualification after qualification campaign? They didn’t win a game in the ten years that followed and Nicky Salapu played in almost all of them. So I embarked on a journey to trace the World Cup qualification campaign from the start, telling the stories of the teams that probably won’t be in Brazil. And I met Salapu in Samoa. That game has haunted him ever since.

You describe several stadiums around the world. Many qualifiers are not played in grandiose multi-purpose stadiums but old, deteriorating stadiums—“fields” might be a better word. The stadiums in Tursunzode, Tajikistan and Port au Prince, Haiti come to mind. For viewers who only watch the Premiership, MLS, or the World Cup, could you describe the settings of some of the less glamorous games?

Wow. Yes. The stadiums. I mean, some of them looked close to death—crumbling and dangerous. Others had huge significance attached to them. I remember in particular the Amahoro Stadium in Kigali, Rwanda. It was here that, during the genocide, the UN managed to set up a rare safe haven for Tutsis. It was shelled throughout that period. In Croatia, I went to the Maksimir, which is the site of a famous match between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb and the ensuing riot that many saw as the opening battle of the Yugoslav civil war. Interestingly, the aesthetics of the places are remarkably uniform. If I had to describe them: brutalist concrete monstrosities far beyond their expiry dates.

One chapter documents the national team from Eritrea. You report that the entire national team disappeared and claimed asylum in Kenya while at the regional CECAFA Cup in 2009. What is it like to play for a bad team from a poor country divested by war and political corruption?

Well, I haven’t played for England so I wouldn’t know. Seriously, it is a different concept than playing for a developed nation. Playing at the World Cup is a way out, a chance to show your skills. But it can also have a hugely uniting effect on a recently damaged country. I always think about Iraq winning the Asian Cup in 2007 with a mixed team of Sunni, Shia and Kurd. For the Eritrea team, it was a way out in a very direct sense. Over 50 team members have fled in recent years. In fact, most of those players I met in Kigali fled a year later when they played in Uganda. They turned up in Holland, after living in refugee camps for 18 months.

It’s impossible to untangle soccer from politics. Soccer can unite divided countries like Lebanon but it can trigger, as the teams from Kosovo and Palestine demonstrate, diplomatic nightmares. How do soccer and politics influence each other?

I think football resonates in the same part of the brain that deals with nationalism or identity. Dictators and leaders have long understood its power, which is why they are drawn to football like moths to a flame. From Mubarak to the military junta in 1970s Argentina, so many leaders try to bask in its reflected glory. But most importantly, for me, football is a reflection of society. You can understand the DNA of a society through football.

FIFA is getting a lot of bad press. It seems like every day there’s a new story about corruption and bribery—John Oliver and the New York Times have been especially critical. You had a chance to speak with FIFA Chairman Sepp Blatter. What is your impression of Blatter and FIFA?

It’s a strange one. On the one hand, it is clear there are some very bad people involved with football. It is a corrupt world because many of the characters we have seen in the Sunday Times grow up in societies where corruption is the norm—it is how people get things done. Not FIFA per se, but the investigations have exposed the sport’s seedy underbelly. Saying that, I don’t believe Blatter is personally corrupt. He’s an internationalist. He has power in FIFA because he has, you could argue, successfully developed the game outside of Europe and South America. He has fended off challenges to football’s global dominance from basketball. Interest in the game has exploded under his watch. The problem with FIFA is that it is a tiny organization that has suddenly been catapulted into a billion dollar business. It has outgrown itself. But Blatter isn’t the demon many people paint him as.

Any predictions for Brazil this year? Do you have your eye on any underdogs, maybe Bosnia or, my team, the United States?

Yes, the U.S.! They have a tough group but Portugal are looking a little shaky and I think Ghana are beatable. Get to the second round and I think we’ll see a pivotal moment in the evolution of the game in the U.S. I’ll also be following Iran and Bosnia. Who wouldn’t want to see either of those two teams in the second round? Other than the Nigerians, obviously.