There aren’t many sports journalists who can claim to have brought the British public news of footballing communities from the Falkland Islands, Zanzibar, Montserrat, Greenland, Tibet and Northern Cyprus, but Steve Menary can lay claim to having done just that. His love of travel and football has combined to provide excellent articles for World Soccer, When Saturday Comes and FourFourTwo and his book “Outcasts! The Lands That FIFA Forgot” shines light on an international football scene that you will not see being reported on by Sky Sports News. Hopefully this interview will motivate you to do some research of your own and read up on some of the incredible teams and competitions mentioned. Steve very kindly gave up his time to share his thoughts on the book, football and the British media.
Could you tell me how you came up with the idea for “Outcasts!” and began writing the book?
I was working for When Saturday Comes when I got the idea for the book. I had been watching a travel programme back in 2005 in which a man visited a number of places that claimed to be real countries but weren’t recognised as one, such as South Ossetia, and I thought to myself that there must be people who play football in these places. After some research I found out that the Island Games on Shetland, Guernsey vs. Jersey and a NF Board (an association made up of teams that represent unrecognised nations, minorities, regions and micro nations) meeting was taking place and thought these would provide perfect subjects for some sample chapters - at the time I was working for a construction magazine and managed to visit all these places through work for the publication. I really wanted to create a book that was unique because I thought; does the world really need another book about Manchester United? Initially publishers didn’t like it because they thought it didn’t have enough humour – they were looking for something that would make fun of these places and the football teams they’d put together, which I thought was pretty insulting. Instead I approached World Soccer and suggested that as I travelled around the world and visited these teams I would contribute an article on every chapter I had written. They loved the originality and that’s how the book got off the ground.
How was “Outcasts!” received and were you happy with the feedback you got?
We missed the Christmas rush when it came out which was a shame but meant that because it wasn’t such a congested market we got lots of reviews and became shortlisted for the National Sports Club Football Book of the Year Award, which left me gobsmacked.
Do you think that some people thought you were endorsing these communities and their teams for FIFA membership, and thus missed the point of the book?
I think some people missed the point because you can divide the teams mentioned into actual representative teams, and what they represent, and others that are national teams in a cultural sense, in which you can play for the team if you can speak a certain language. For example, to play for the Lapland national team you need to do a test about how Lappish you felt. I really wanted the book to look at the idea of national identity, what it involves and how it displays itself.
Your column in World Soccer magazine covered non-FIFA countries initially and now is beginning to look instead at the smaller recognised countries that take part in the football community. Can you tell us more about that decision and its progression?
It was my idea so that I could continue my work on “Outcasts!”. My first articles were about Gibraltar, Greenland, Zanzibar, Northern Cyprus and the Channel Islands before travelling to Hamburg to report on the VIVA World Cup (a competition contested by a selection of non-FIFA countries). Eventually I was working on an article about football on St Helena and realised that there was a finite number of places I could cover if I insisted on doing non-FIFA teams. I started to look at countries at the bottom of the FIFA rankings so now the column sheds light on countries like Mongolia and Samoa. You have to be imaginative when you cover countries like Sao Tome and Principe because you cannot always make the journey but I have been to places like Andorra to write about the Catalonian national team, Belgium and Luxembourg for Champions League qualifying games and saw the Tahitian national team play in Paris.
In a country in which the media is obsessed with the Premier League and Champions League, what has been your experience of trying to bring news from around the world to these shores?
You can never expect the final of the Liechtenstein Cup to be on the back page of British newspapers but I do feel that there is a space for stuff like that, and publications like World Soccer and When Saturday Comes agree. The mainstream media is being swamped with the same stories, and once again, who needs another story about Manchester United? That is why fantastic websites like In Bed With Maradona have become very popular in recent years as a reaction to that. The Internet has space for all these things.
This summer saw Tahiti reach the Confederations Cup, eliciting anger from many parts of the media that such a small national team was allowed to take part in a tournament containing Spain, Italy and Brazil. Are you surprised at the disregard people have for these countries?
People just want an elite group of countries that can compete and do away with the rest. Tahiti weren’t there by default; they earned the right to play like everybody else and won something. Do these people want to write off Oceania? Because Australia has left, and if New Zealand does not qualify, then should we block anyone else from competing? Is that fair? If they think it is then they should have a look at themselves because that is not how sport started out: that's people just talking the commercial line. That Tahitian squad’s impact on football in their country will be much greater than anyone who criticised them.
Should FIFA be actively recruiting new member nations who need assistance like Micronesia?
They did a few years ago when there was a drive to find new members like Tuvalu and Kiribati. It is a hard one to say. South Sudan was admitted into FIFA straight away while Kiribati has waited six or seven years for a decision. It is a difficult decision to make and too easy to criticise FIFA just because they are a mammoth organisation. FIFA and the Danish FA worked together to provide an artificial pitch for the people of Greenland so they aren’t all bad. When you hear commentators go on about the huge amounts of wealth in the Premier League and Champions League it is staggering that the people of Kosovo still receive absolutely nothing from the European governing body.