American Samoa footballers Nicky Salapu and Jaiyah Saelua with coach Thomas Rongen. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Next Goal Wins: a football film with a vital message about overcoming transphobia in sport

A new documentary about the American Samoa football team (who hold the world record for the biggest international defeat – 31-0 to Australia in 2001) gives hope that professional sport won’t always be prejudiced against those who are different.

Until very recently, I was pretty certain that I’d never watch a film that would appeal to me as both a Nottingham Forest supporter and a lesbian. Actually, I’d probably never even imagined such a thing. Before I saw Next Goal Wins, my loves of crushing football underdogism and all things queer had never quite intersected.

Released last month, Next Goal Wins is a British documentary about the world’s worst international football squad and the mad Dutchman who believed in them. In 2001, American Samoa broke an unfortunate world record. Their 31-0 defeat by Australia will probably last a long time in sporting history as the worst ever. Goalkeeper Nicky Salapu was left so haunted by the loss that he’d challenge his blubbersome white whale, Australia, to a rematch every evening via video game. And still lose.

With the 2014 World Cup qualifiers looming like a Forest fan over her post-match misery pint, a single win for American Samoa (who seem to have never scored a goal) is looking impossible. Then, all of a sudden, something comes bounding out of Holland in the shape of lovably zealous coach Thomas Rongen. Rongen, who looks a bit like Donald Sutherland, proclaims a new era for his adopted team by (Dutchly) climbing to the highest point on the island and shouting some stuff.

The Hollander’s transformation of the team is utterly captivating. Rongen, whose teenage daughter tragically died in a road accident, is motivated by his own sense of loss. This drive, paired with the team’s bullish refusal to give up on the sport that they love makes for some fairly hefty lumps in throats.

But, Rocky-esque sports movie narrative aside, Next Goal Wins is about a hell of a lot more than football. Centre-back Jaiyah Saelua is the first transgender person to compete in a men’s World Cup qualifier. Saelua is what’s known in Samoa as fa’afafine, or belonging to a third gender. In fact, this kind of gender nonconformism is celebrated in Samoan culture. Saelua’s identity is never an issue. She’s a skilled defender, and that’s all that matters to her teammates and her manager. But, in the context of international football, Saelua is an underdog within an underdog, and I have never admired a sportsperson more.

Next Goal Wins isn’t your average feel-good sports film; it’s important. Men’s sport is one of the final frontiers of homophobia, transphobia and all related phobias of difference. Earlier this month, Michael Sam made American football history by coming out as gay. He was the first ever NFL player to do so, and many thought he’d put his career at risk. Predictably, a lot of burger-brained sports fans are having trouble reconciling gayness with the hyper-hetero world of muscle-bound men rolling around in mud together.

As you may have guessed, in spite of their monumental improvement, American Samoa probably aren’t going to be winning the World Cup anytime soon. Tiny as they still may be, they’re a rainbow over an abattoir. Saelua and her teammates are emblems of hope to queers and Forest fans alike.

And, if you happen to be reading this, Mr Rongen, if you fancy Mary Poppins-ing your way over to England’s East Midlands, there’s a team there who could use some Dutch courage.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.