All power to James Montague. Travelling the world and watching football can get ropey at times, especially in Latin America or Eastern Europe, but it’s not often one’s life is in danger, or the government could wish to deport you. These are challenges Montague faced as he traversed some of the most dangerous regions in the world – especially for a western journalist – in his relentless pursuit to get under the skin of the beautiful game in the Middle East.
Politics and religion are intertwined wherever Montague goes. Within Israel, it becomes particularly acute. In Tel Aviv, a city which prides itself on its sexual liberalism while also being home to many strict religious Jews, he encounters the famously left-wing football club, Hapoel Tel Aviv, which contrasts with the staunchly right-wing Bneh Yehuda.
In Jerusalem, Montague visits Beitar, a club renowned for its ultra-right-wing support, which includes senior politicians, and experiences first-hand their fans’ famous hatred for Arab players.
Wherever he goes, Montague skilfully weaves in human narratives from the many fascinating people he meets along the way, from stallholders to taxi drivers, even a hung-up phone call with Gabriel Batistuta in Qatar.
Often, wider sociological issues collide with, and massively impact, the game. In Yemen, Montague sees for himself the devastating effect of the recreational drug qat on fans and players alike. He escapes to the sanctuary of the airport after his driver is involved in a knife fight – it’s a close call.
Montague covers the region before and after the Arab Spring, including the Port Said tragedy of 2012, in which 74 fans died in rioting. He also looks into the “soft power” reasons Qatar may have been awarded the 2022 World Cup by FIFA, such as the development of its Aspire football academy, opening in 2005 by Pelé and Diego Maradona. His account of Aspire’s launch and the contrasting reception both greats received is quite something.
When Friday Comes is not a recent publication – it came out in 2013 – but it is a fascinating read and he gets pretty much everywhere; Iran, Iraq, Syria (pre-Civil War, of course), Bahrain, Lebanon.
Give it a spin: