When Friday Comes

Thanks to the exploits of Amr Zaki, the Abu Dhabi United Group and Huwar Mullah Mohammed this season, the influence of the Middle East in European football is becoming greater.

So, James Montague’s book “When Friday Comes” (the title is a clever play on the name of the British football magazine “When Saturday Comes”) is timely as it sheds light on a region of football crazies.

Over the last few years there have been some exceptional books on football on various places in the world, but this is the first of its kind to deal with the Middle East and Montague should be praised for taking on such an ambitious project and producing an incredibly entertaining book.

Thanks to Montague’s seemingly fearless appetite for adventure “When Friday Comes” sheds light on a number of startling countries where football provides an insight into the ruling regimes and also illuminates one of the most fascinating parts the world.

Montague, a journalist, meets Marcel Desailly in Dubai, travels to Iran who struggle to find opposition to play them and then follows both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the 2006 World Cup. The book really moves into gear in Israel, where the author describes a country of pot smokers obsessed with their football – far removed from the image usually given over of the Jewish state.

Drugs seems to play a much bigger role than one would ever have expected and undoubtedly the standout chapter of the book is on Yemen. A country addicted to Khat. As Montague discovers the entire country is addicted to the drug which is detrimental to playing high level sport as following an initial high it can leave the user lethargic.

As a result Yemen are one of the worst ranked international teams in world football and the football association is fighting a losing battle to wean their players off the drug. Montague meets with the Yemen FA who tell him of their ongoing battle with the drug, proceed to explain to him how they will attempt to improve football in the country and then go on to use khat with him in the clearest illustration possible of just how difficult it will be to rid the country of a drug that causes untold problems.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the diverse nature of many of the countries in the Middle East. Almost each chapter has a different identity depending on where Montague is. In Iraq, there are many of the well documented problems following the removal of Saddam Hussein, in Lebanon the terrorist group Hizbullah looms large and fund the richest team in the league.

Whilst the chapters on Syria and Jordan reflect politics as much as football and how they intertwine in countries without true democracies where football fans can express their political affiliations on the football terraces as opposed to anywhere else in their country.

If there is one criticism to level at Montague it is that the book is written from an outsiders perspective, in the future we can expect books on the Middle East to come from native speakers and this will hopefully add a further layer to our understanding of the region.

The book ends with Montague attending the fiercesome Cairo rivalry of Al Ahly and Zamalek. Arguably one of the great derbies in world football and the crazy football fans in the Middle East are featured throughout the book. And this is one reason why football will continue to be the number one sport in the Middle East.

Everybody knows that the Premier League and to a somewhat lesser extent La Liga and Serie A are popular all around the world, but the story of fanatical fandom in the Middle East is one of Montague’s finest achievements and is why we can expect to see many more Amr Zakis in European football.