No gold medal for Goldenballs Beckham

Dropping Beckham from the Olympic squad may have effectively ended his international career, but it was the kindest thing to do.

David Beckham’s dream is over. There will be no gold medal for the golden-haired Goldenballs of English football, the towering presence who has stood astride Wembley these past 15 years, and who was hoping for one last hurrah.

There will be no close-ups of Posh in the crowd as he takes a deep breath and lines up the vital last-minute free-kick to go sailing into the top corner. There will be no frenzied applause as he jogs up and down the touchline at what at first appears to be warming-up speed but is actually as fast as he can go nowadays. And there will be no glory for Beckham as his international career comes to a close without him even kicking a ball.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Stuart Pearce, the former electrician and part-time national hero who is now coach of the Great Britain Olympic football team, has opted for pragmatism rather than pride, and left Becks out of the final squad.

In some ways it’s sad that someone who was so instrumental in bringing the Games to his East London backyard should be passed over in favour of players who have achieved much less, yet who can run faster. But in a purely competitive sense, Pearce has made the right choice for everyone – probably including Beckham himself.

A brilliant career with England, Manchester United, Real Madrid (and yes, the LA Galaxy) is coming to an end. He may still be young at 37 (I say this as a 37-year-old), but his best days are well behind him, when he was scoring at will and delivering incredible dead balls from all over the pitch.

Despite the moments of joy he brought at international level – the smashed redemption penalty against Argentina, the coruscating free-kicks against Colombia, Greece and Ecuador, the vital part he played in that 5-1 false dawn against Germany in Munich – he couldn’t lead England to glory, no matter how hard everyone tried.

He was so talented, England tried everything with him, even playing him as a ‘quarterback’ on one particularly ill-conceived night of shame when Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England were well beaten by Northern Ireland. But that reflected a part of the problem with his brilliance: Beckham was made for a game with rolling substitutions. His all-round game, emphasised perhaps by his jumping out of a crucial tackle that led to Brazil’s goal in the World Cup quarter-final Shizuoka in 2002, never matched his technical class, and that only became more obvious as time went on.

Beckham is part of the misfiring ‘golden generation’ who have promised so much but delivered so little. The less sparkling part of his legacy lives on – where once he was the undroppable player, put in the team regardless of form or tactics, now it’s Wayne Rooney who occupies the position of England’s sine qua non, even if he’s not quite up to scratch – as was the case in Euro 2012 and that tame capitulation to Italy the other night. But so do the best qualities that Beckham brought – a devotion to the England shirt, a desire to put skill first and graft second, and a fierce competitive edge.

In some ways, it’s a kindness that Pearce has given Beckham by denying him his last lap of honour. Imagine him hopelessly outpaced as he attempts to keep up with the under-23s haring up and down the wing, waiting for one dead-ball situation to rescue the team. Imagine his team-mates hearing a bigger roar for someone on the bench than they hear for themselves.

That’s no way for the man to bow out. He deserves better – a knighthood will probably do, in time. For now, he’ll just have to watch from the sidelines like the rest of us, if he can get tickets (and I suspect he might). In the end, the decision to drop him was made for purely footballing reasons – something Beckham will probably respect in time, no matter how much it hurts right now.

 

David Beckham holds the Olympic Flame as it arrives at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall. Photograph: Getty Images
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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.