Sunday, 8 July 2018

Tenuous Politics Football World Cup 2018: 1st Round.

On June 14th the World Cup kicked off.   Call it a coping strategy.  Call it first rate global analysis.  Call it a bit of time wasting.  Here is my tenuous political take on the first round of the tournament.   

2 nations met in the opening match who are both adept at using football for political ends. As they chatted over the demolition of the Saudi football team Putin and Prince Salman must have been feeling pretty happy with themselves.
It is a year this week that Saudi Arabia launched their economic assault against their Arabic neighbours/ rivals (and world cup hosts in 2022) Qatar. Using their football federation they have attempted to take over the running of the Arabic Football area and have refused to allow Qatari refs to take charge of games involving Saudi Teams in their Champions League. Critically the day before Saudi used their votes and their acolytes including Bahrain and the UAE to award the World Cup to the USA and others in 2026 rather than their fellow Arab League State Morocco (who also lost narrowly today). Futher cementing the bond between Trump and Salman (Saudi being one of Islamic countries that avoided his travel ban last year) and isolating Qatar. Significantly Iran narrow victors against Morocco refused to back either. Cuba also abstained if you're interested
Meanwhile Putin has used the platform of the World Cup to cement his power despite the UK led attempt to destabilise it in the preceding months. Perhaps unsurprisingly Russia also backed Trump's bid for the 2026 Cup The opening match was a bit of a proxy also for the Syrian conflict with the Saudis- who have funded the Anti -Assad rebels. A 5 nil pretty victory must have confirmed Putin in his arrogance
Meanwhile tonight the workers' cooperative led Spain (sacking their manager 2 days before tournament) meet old rivals the pragmatic Euro champs Portugal. Who said football wasn't political, No me!

Argentina v Iceland - battle of the economic crises this afternoon.
In 2000-2 the Argentinian economy and state essentially collapsed due to neo-liberal policies applied brutally in 1990s. (See picture below) A foretaste for the end of the 00s where the banking collapse almost destroyed Iceland who were heavily reliant on finance capital.
Argentinian football was deeply affected and the humiliating perfomance in the 2002 World Cup (England even beat them!) underlined this. Messi and Aguero were both becoming teenagers at that time - Messi had to leave the country aged 12 as his team cashed in and went to Barcelona. Aguero's team Independiente kept him for a couple of years until he moved to Atletico Madrd as a 16 year old. Even with Messi at is prime it took well over for a decade for Argentina to recover - they reached the final last time in 2014 and the Copa America final twice in 2015 and 2016. Always runners up though: falling at last hurdle. Again facing an economic precipice this maybe one last shot for this team - Messi being 31 next week..
Iceland are in their first World Cup a remarkable achievement given the collapse of their infrastructure10 years ago. In aftermath of 2008 crisis even Scotland finished above them in 2010 World Cup qualifying group. We beat them twice! Turning to developing the grassroots facilities and allowing Icelandic young footballers to go abroad (as Argentina did) they have turned this round. This culminated in getting to the quarter finals of the Euros in 2016 humiliating England along the way May be a tournament too far but the fact they are here at all is amazing.
 Germany v Mexico - electoral battles.
The political classes of both these states face their own crises in the next week. Angela Merkel the leader of World Cup holders Germany that dominates the EU could be forced out of office tomorrow because her right wing Home Secretary Seehoffer wants to introduce a hard line immigration policy in defiance of her and the EU. The right wing in Germany have been bolstered by the elevation of the hard right Freedom Party into power in Austria in December 2017. It is likely the coalition will fall causing another election. Ironically the strength of the current German team has been based on fully integrating 1st and 2nd generation immigrants to amazing effect.. Sami Khedira's brother is part of England's opponents Tunisia tomorrow. Ozil's grandparents came from Turkey in the aftermath of WW2
Meanwhile in Mexico - also the target of virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric this time from Trump and his "wall" - have an election on 1st July where it is likely a left wing Populist leader Obrador will win. He has a radical economic and anti-corruption programme which is shaking up the establishment. His roots are in the PRD which 30 years ago in 88 - came from almost nowhere to win the Presidency in what was seen as a one party state in Mexico. He currently has a 17 point lead and his victory will shake Trump to his foundations! It remains to be seen if the Mexican team can follow his lead today. Viva Obrador!

England v Tunisia. Battle of austerity.
Tunisia was the starting point of the Arab Spring in 2011. Since then there has been more or less a democratic regime. In fact they began a trial of their dictator Ben Ali last month. It was in absentia though as Ali now lives in Saudi Arabia. One problem though is that the Tunisian government are captured by the IMF.
A loan was given to the country in December 2016 with the usual conditions of privatisation and cuts. A visit from the IMF in April this year demanded more changes. The government duly delivered with an increase on fuel prices announced on June 1st. This followed price increases for basics like bread which sparked major protests in January (see below) - this has caused major polarisation between rich and poor.
Their national football team symbolises thier freedom as it was recognised immediately after their independence in 1956. Their first international was against Algeria who did so well at last World Cup(in the middle of the war) in 1957.The Tunisian team have become reliant on players with familial links to the country -although they have been at the World Cup 4 times they have struggled in recent years - last winning the African cup of Nations in 2004
England have also suffered 8 years of austerity although self imposed not by the IMF - though the Premier League has been a cocooned protected zone for the super -wealthy footballers. Uniquely at this tournament Brexit England are the only squad with no players from outside their domestic league. Who will triumph between the two discredited economic models!

Poland v Senegal. Present at this afternoon's match will be Senegalese President Macky Sall who will meet with Putin before hand to discuss Gazprom's involvement in Senegal's oil fields. Sall s brother had to resign in 2016 from a leading oil company due to conflict of interests. The Senegal state has recently teargassed his own population in April this year (see below) over the proposal to prevent smaller political parties contesting future Presidential elections.
Senegal have struggled since reaching the quarters in the 2002 World Cup (the year they won the African Cup of Nations). In fact this is first time they have qualified since. This is Africa's last chance to win a first game here with all others narrowly losing after England s last gasp winner over Tunisia.
Poland have a crisis of their own with the EU trying to overturn the far right government's reform of the courts. The Law and Justice Government are also attacking abortion rights in the country and seeking control over Universities. This has sparked demonstrations and occupations across all of Poland in the last few weeks. Backing Britain's governmental boycott of Cup the right wing Polish President Duda will not attend!


Iran v Spain. Battle of the almost dropped players.
Tonight's match sees Iran attempting to build on their opening lucky victory against Morocco. It their line up is the same their left back Hajsafi and attacking no. 7 Shojaei are worth watching. They were dropped from the squad after playing with their Greek league team Panionios in a European tie in Israel against Tel Aviv. Iran does not recognise Israel and accordingly punished the players. Their Portugese born manager (ex deputy at Man United) Queiroz intevened and the players were allowed to re-join the squad. As more Iranian players are operating at a high level in Europe which recognises Israel as a member of UEFA this is likely to be a recurring problem. However the team now have official backing and President Rouhani watched the match wearing a strip last Friday (see below).
Never dropped but Spain defender Gerard Pique announced in the immediate aftermath of the contested Catalonian referendum last October that he was prepared to stand down from the Spanish team because of his support for Catalan independence and some low level booing when playing for Spain. The same issue has seen Guardiola reprimanded for by the English Premier League 4 of Spain's line up against Portugal were Barcelona players (although Iniesta announced his retirement) and 3 of them are Catalans. The manager was happy to keep Pique - although he has now been sacked. The Spanish success depends on cooperation between the Spanish players - mainly Barcelona and Real Madrid stalwarts! Wonder if any of the 3 potentially banned players could score?

 France v Peru.
There is an element of people power and solidarity around this Peruvian team. Captain Guerrero was initially banned after testing postive for cocaine - he claims it was a tainted test coming from an unclean tea cup! All captains of his opposing teams in this group France, Australia and Denmark stated their wish for Guerreo to play and there was demos of thousands across Peru. The ban was cut and Gurerro can now play.
This World Cup is a big deal for Peru - the right wingPresident called a national holiday when they qualified last year. He is no longer in post having to resign in March 2018 due to a corruption scandal. Unfortunately the main opposition forces in Peru are right wing populists "Popular Force" led by Keiko Fujimori - the daughter of 90s President who introduced neo -liberalism at same time as Menem in Argentina. Unusually for Latin America the left are relatively weak largely because of the legacy of the defeat of the Shining Path and Maoism in Peru which Fujimori senior carried out using massive armed forces. People have taken to the streets though particularly over the pardon granted to Fujimori in December 2017. Expect massive celebrations if they beat Les Bleus this afternoon.

Serbia v Switzerland.
Tonight's match has an added dimension with the struggle for Kosovar Independence in the background. The Swiss had a relatively open policy to immigration through the 2000s which was only challenged in the last few years by an anti-migration referendum (the most common way legislation is made in Switzerland) Their first team has a number of Kosovo Albanian refugees whose family arrive at that time - notably Shaqiri and Xhaka (whose brother plays for Albania) from the English leages. Shaqiri even has a Kosovar flag on one of his boots.
Serbian striker Mitrovic has been pretty dismissive saying if they support Kosovo why don't they play for them. Kosovo was recognised by UEFA in 2016 - though are not allowed to play Serbia for obvious reasons (they do not recognise the state). Although the Swiss players took citizenship way before the Kosova football team was recognised.
Serbia was wracked with protest in 2017 (see below) over the election of Presidnt Vucic - seen as introducing right wing authoritarianism. They have big ties with Putin's Russia so will get big support tonight.
Panama v England
England's lunchtime opponents are at their first ever World Cup. Like Peru a national holiday was called last October when they qualified over the USA. A massive achievement for a country of 4 million. The coach Gomez is worth watching, a Colombian who is one of the few managers that has got 3 different unfancied teams to the World Cup - Colombia in 1998 and Ecuador in 2002 and now Panama. England beat Colombia in 98 (subject of a Kirsty McColl song!).
The Panamaian President Varlea has faced protests this year in the second city Colon near the Panama Canal (see below - banner saying Colon not for sale). He has introduced a free trade zone in the city and opened it up to corrupt construction contracts - which are a scandal across Latin America involving the Brazilian company Odebrecht. This extreme neo-liberal form of gentrification is seen as an attack on the poor.
The stratification of the mega rich was also involved in England's last encounter with Panama - the leaking of the Panama Papers in 2015 which showed the tax dodging methods of off-shore companies organised by the Panamanian law firm Fonseca (although the tax dodges were not in Panama). The papers named ex PM Cameron as one of the clients. Cameron resigned during Euro 2016 4 days before the England Manager Roy Hodgson did...
Can this Panama formation cause equivalent ructions?

Spain v Morocco
Morocco play their last game in the World Cup tonight after narrowly losing their first two games. As mentioned before their first loss came before the tournament when losing out to the USA in hosting the 2026 World Cup. The Moroccan regime is attempting to spread its influence in the West and across the Islamic world - in oppostion to Saudi in particular (who also play their last game today) who voted against them hosting the World Cup.
It also has faced a popular uprising in the Northern Rif region since October 2016 (see below) - caused by the death of a fish seller who was challenging authorities regulations on markets. Like in Panama this movement was against gentrification, but also for democracy (Morocco is still a monarchy) and Berber identity rights. The army was called in by the KIng of Morocco and the leaders jailed - one of them Zefzazi is currently undertaking a hunger strike after facing solitarty confinement. The West have been generally silent about this.
Morocco and Spain have a long history with Morocco ruling Spain for 800 years. Spain still permanently occupies two towns in Morocco - Ceuta and Melilla. Spain have been fairly impressive without a manager who was sacked almost in parallel with the Spanish PM Rajoy who had to resign at the start of June over corruption claims. Viva the collective!

Australia v Peru.
Australia have an outside chance this afternoon of qualifying for the second round of the World Cup for the first time ever. This would be welcome in a tournament that is so far going to form. The Socceroos have an international flavour about them of first and second generation Australians - in the A-League (the Oz soccer league) only around 1% of the players are from an indigenous background.
Oz's team come from a variety of backgounds Lebanese (Nabbout), Serbian (Rogic), German (Mooy), Turkish (Behich), Croatian (Jedinak). Their young hope for the future 19 year old Daniel Arzani who made a difference when he came on against Denmark was born in Iran. This reflects the multi-cultural nature of Australia.
However new immigrants coming to Australia may not get that chance to play for the national team. Although Trump's horrible anti-immigrant attitude and use of cages on the Mexican border has gained much publicity in the last week - Australia detain asylum seekers on islands miles from the country - notably the Nauru detention camp (see below) in terrible conditions. This was introduced by right wing Iraq war supporting Howard's government in the 00s as a "Pacific Solution". Despite protests and reports of horrific conditions the Nauru camp has remained open. On Friday June 15th an asylum seeker (also from Iran) killed himself - just as the World Cup was getting started. This brings the total who have died in the detention camps to 12. The system has been backed by the two main parties in Australia.
The International migration crisis is one of many that is ongoing as the World Cup continues.

 England v Belgium.
Like their evening opponents Belgium have always struggled with their identity. The team is currently a mixture of Flemish born speakers - De Bruyne, Alderweid, Vertonghen and the more urban French speakers the Hazard brothers, Lukaku, Kompany etc. The brutal imperial legacy of Belgium in Africa is also represented with a key core of players having Congolese routes - Lukaku and Boyata's fathers were footballers in Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo, Batshuyai had the opportunity to play for the DRC. Holding the team together well is Spaniard and ex Premier League boss Martinez. Belgium have rarely used foreign coaches although a Scot was one of the first managers of the national team. So Martinez marks a shift Their last coach Wilmots was viewed as arrogant and aloof and was also a right wing Francophone politician for the party of Government for a couple of years.
Belgium hosts England's other opponents at the moment - the EU! - but the Belgian government imposes its own policies - again notably on immigration - with a hardline right wing position. There are make-shift immigration camps in Brussels and there has been protests over mass deportations of refugees. to Sudan (see below) in cahoots with the Khartoum government, The EU is having a summit today in Belgium on the topic of immigration with Merkel feeling pressure from the right wing. Could she shockingly get knocked out like the German team too!

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