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The Friday Interview: Discovering Soccer In The War Zones

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One of the last places you'd expect to see a cockney-speaking, West Ham-supporting English soccer fan from Essex is mixing with the ultras in the Cairo National Stadium during the heated derby match between Al Ahly and Zamalek; let alone on the terraces at Hizbullah-run Lebanese Premier League club Al Ahed, watching Iran play Costa Rica at Teheran's Azadi Stadium or in Damascus to view a training session of Syrian champion Al Jaish.

But James Montague isn't your average English soccer fan from Essex.

For the past three years the 29-year-old writer has traveled the length and breadth of the Middle East, on a mission to find out just how deep a connection there is between soccer and local society in countries including Jordan, Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

As his voyages became more serious he began setting up interviews with the main players and managers at the top teams in each country and the notes he kept turned into a book entitled When Friday Comes, a play on the name of a popular English soccer magazine.

Now back in England, Montague says the journeys reinvigorated his love for the beautiful game which turned out to be both very similar and incredibly different to what he had been used to back home watching the Hammers in East London.

"It was strange seeing the uniformity of the game, the pitch, the referees, the bad decisions, the fantastic goals," he tells The Jerusalem Post. "But that was it. The culture on and off the terraces was totally alien to me.

"The interesting thing was how everyone prayed before, during and after the games. You would see fans kneeling to Mecca at half time with the officials on the pitch and teams praying together before a match started.

"At one Palestinian match I went to, a local cup game, I saw a team from outside Bethlehem, Wad El Nes, pray before a penalty shoot out.

"The whole experience reinvigorated my love for football [soccer]. The [English] Premiership seems so bloated by cash and tantrums. In the Middle East the game is still close to its roots, to its communities.

"It's important and vital and, of course, highly political. I guess the more it is commercialized the less it will be like this. I'm just glad I was lucky enough to see the region and the game at the time of its development that I did."

Montague first got into Middle East soccer while working for Time Out's magazine in Dubai. He soon became hooked on visiting the stadia of the region, an experience which taught him a great deal about the uniting force of soccer.

"I learned that the only thing anyone can agree on is the Football Association rule book," he says with a smile.

"The region is a hotbed of tensions, conflicts and contradictions so there's little that unites the states. Arab nationalism, you could argue, is a failed concept. Religion? Well, the region is split between the Shia and Sunni, not to mention the Jews in Israel, Coptics in Egypt and Maronites in Lebanon.

"But football - everyone can agree on that. There wasn't one country that didn't have an obsessive love of the game. And being British I learned that, despite a perceived enmity between East and West, football can disable even the most hardened Islamist or religious fanatic.

"Everywhere I went I wasn't asked about the war in Iraq, or Tony Blair, or how evil the West was. I was asked 'Who do you support: Chelsea or Man U?' or 'Why can't Gerrard and Lampard play in the center together?'"

Montague visited Israel more than six times during his research, and says it was one of the countries which most surprised him.

"I was always surprised about how divided Israeli society is," he says. "When I went to Lebanon, I knew about the sectarian nature of the conflict there. In Yemen, I knew about how the locals are all addicted to a drug called qat. But Israel I had always assumed to be this united force against countries around it that want to push it in the sea.

"But you forget, Israel is a country that has been built on a huge influx of immigration from very disparate cultures. So when I met the fans of Bnei Yehuda or Betar [Jerusalem] I understood the split between the white, Labor-voting Ashkenazim and the Likud-voting Mizrahim. The hatred, for instance, between Hapoel Tel Aviv and Betar was almost as bad as between Betar and Bnei Sakhnin, an Israeli Arab club."

Having spent a relatively long cumulative time in Israel, Montague was in a good position to judge the attitudes of Arab soccer fans to the holy land. And they weren't as black and white as some might expect.

He says he found that soccer "is a sponge that soaks up what's going on in society."

"When I was in the West Bank speaking to the Palestinian national coach, he would say there was no way he would allow his team to play Israel, because of the occupation.

"But when you actually got talking to normal people on and off the terraces you realized that most people don't have this virulent hatred for Jews or Israel. They have misconceptions," he recalls.

"One guy I spoke to at the Yemeni FA said to me, after I told him I had been to Israel, 'why does America let the Jews in Israel control the media and the banks?'

"He was serious. But that was what he was taught at school. A few minutes explanation put that misconception right. But he had gone through his whole life believing that to be fact. I mean, what else would he think if he's taught it at school, told it through the media and told it by his contemporaries? Once you get down to it, one on one, the differences and the hatred are negligible between Arab Muslims and Jewish Israelis."

When Friday Comes: Football in the Danger Zone (Mainstream Publishing) is out now and available to order on www.amazon.co.uk

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