The crowds at the coronation of Felipe VI of Spain. Photo: Getty
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Why the World Cup is not a reliable political football

World leaders have often found, to their cost, that using football as a political emblem isn’t always as successful as they might hope.

As King William-Alexander of the Netherlands watched the Dutch football team qualifying for the next round with a win over Australia on 18 June, the Spanish royal family saw the handover of power from King Juan Carlos to his son King Philip VI (Felipe VI). The ceremony sandwiched the Spain-v-Chile football game; the law approving the succession receiving royal assent at 6pm local time and the act of abdication being signed-off at midnight.

The royal ceremony happened on Wednesday, according to the speaker of the Spanish parliament, because that is how long it had taken to complete the legal formalities following the announcement of Juan Carlos’s abdication on 2 June. But, surely the Bourbons were hoping that the juxtaposition with the game would be a great symbol for what the old king said would "open a new era of hope". After all Spain were reigning World and European champions. However, the Spanish football team also abdicated their title with the 2-0 defeat to former colony Chile. It is not the only time that football has proved to be an unreliable emblem for national rulers.

In 1974 when Zaïre (Congo-Kinshasa) became the first sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the World Cup it was seen as widely symbolic for the post-colonial era. Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko wanted to make the most of it but everything went wrong. The team almost did not go to the tournament in a dispute over payments. When they did eventually turn up perhaps they would have wished that they hadn’t – three defeats and no goals. After the second loss, a 9-0 drubbing by Yugoslavia, the players were even threatened by Mobutu’s goons.

The Nazis staged their own symbolic football match in 1938 to celebrate the annexation of Austria. The so-called Anschlussspiel featured the German national team against the then world-class Austrian side as a prelude to the latter being subsumed into the Germany squad. However, led by talismanic striker Matthias Sindelar, Hitler’s old country embarrassed him by defeating his new Reich 2-0. Sindelar, goal-scorer and a known opponent of Nazism, then retired from the international game and was found dead along with his girlfriend a few months later – the official verdict being carbon monoxide poisoning.

The notorious Football War in July 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras took place following the three game play-off to qualify for the 1970 World Cup between the two countries. El Salvador won the decisive game in neutral Mexico City 3-2 at the end of June 1969, on the same day that Honduras broke off diplomatic relations with its neighbour. The games had been marred by violence and intimidation of the Honduran team before the second game in San Salvador. Hostilities broke out two weeks later and lasted four days (hence the conflict’s other name the Hundred Hours War) before the Organisation of American States brokered a ceasefire. An estimated 2,000 people were killed and many thousands became refugees. However, though the football games did not help relations, the war was actually rooted in long standing land and emigration disputes.

Even when football seemingly acts as a perfect political symbol things do not always go well. The 1978 World Cup tournament in Argentina was hosted by the country’s military junta. Awarded to Argentina before the military take-over in 1976, the generals managed to dissuade participants from boycotting the tournament and amid much hurrah the national side went onto win the first of their two World Cups. The generals celebrated their win in a stadium within earshot of Naval Mechanics School prison where they tortured and murdered political prisoners. However, the international media did not ignore the demonstrations by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. And although the World Cup may have been the junta’s high-watermark rising inflation and unemployment soon brought the regime into disrepute. Its last throw of the dice, the Falklands War, ended with the Argentine army surrendering Port Stanley to the British the day before the Argentine side lost their opening World Cup game 1-0 to Belgium in the Spain 82 tournament. The 1978 World Cup win is now remembered with embarrassment, especially when compared to the thrilling way that Maradona led Argentina to triumph in 1986.

One later Argentine rumour relates how elected President Carlos Menem (1989-1999) is a harbinger of bad luck – famously he greeted the team before their 1-0 defeat to Cameroon in the opening game of Italia 90. Reportedly his reputation for bad luck when watching the national team became such that he started staying away from games!

The World Cup therefore is not a reliable political football, something that may be on the mind of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is up for re-election in October.

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The triumph of Misbah-ul-Haq, the quiet grafter

How Misbah redeemed Pakistani cricket.

It was an incongruous sight: the entire Pakistani cricket team doing press-ups on the revered pitch at Lord’s, led by its captain, Misbah-ul-Haq. This unusual celebration marked not merely a Test match victory over England on Sunday but something greater: the rehabilitation of Pakistani cricket.

Seven years earlier, the Sri Lankan team bus was en route to the cricket stadium in Lahore for the third day of a Test match against Pakistan when it was attacked by Islamist militants. Gunfire killed six police officers and a driver; several Sri Lankan cricketers were also injured. That was the last Test match played in Pakistan, which, despite protestations, opponents consider too dangerous to visit.

A year later, Pakistan toured England for a Test series. The News of the World alleged that in the final match at Lord’s three Pakistani cricketers had conspired to bowl no-balls in exchange for money. All three received bans of five years or more for corruption. The entire squad was lampooned; police had to shield its members from abuse as they arrived home.

Misbah was on the periphery of all of this. Aged 36 at the time, he was dropped from the squad before the English tour and seemed unlikely to play international cricket again. But the turbulence engulfing Pakistani cricket forced the selectors to reassess. Not only was Misbah recalled but he was made captain. “You have to ask yourself,” he later said: “‘Have I been the captain because they supported me, or because they had no alternatives?’”

Pakistani cricket prizes and mythologises teenage talent plucked from obscurity and brought into the international side. During his decade as captain, Imran Khan picked 11 teenagers to make their debuts, often simply on the basis of being wowed by their performance in the nets. Misbah shows that another way is possible. He grew up in Mianwali, a city that was so remote that: “The culture there wasn’t such that you thought about playing for Pakistan.”

At the behest of his parents, he devoted his early twenties not to his promising batting but to gaining an MBA. Only at 24 did he make his first-class debut, strikingly late in an age when professional sportsmen are expected to dedicate all their energy to the game from their teenage years.

Pakistani cricket has always been “a little blip of chaos to the straight lines of order”, Osman Samiuddin writes in The Unquiet Ones. Misbah has created order out of chaos. He is unflappable and methodical, both as a captain and as a batsman. His mood seems impervious to results. More than anything, he is resilient.

He has led Pakistan to 21 Test victories – seven more than any other captain. He has done this with a bowling attack ravaged by the 2010 corruption scandal and without playing a single match at home. Because of security concerns, Pakistan now play in the United Arab Emirates, sometimes in front of fewer than a hundred supporters.

Misbah has developed a team that marries professionalism with the self-expression and flair for which his country’s cricket is renowned. And he has scored runs – lots of them. Over his 43 Tests as captain, he has averaged at 56.68. Few have been so empowered by responsibility, or as selfless. He often fields at short leg, the most dangerous position in the game and one usually reserved for the team’s junior player.

Misbah has retained his capacity to surprise. As a batsman, he has a reputation for stoic defence. Yet, in November 2014 he reached a century against Australia in just 56 balls, equalling the previous record for the fastest ever Test innings, held by Viv Richards. The tuk-tuk had become a Ferrari.

Late in 2015, Misbah tried to retire. He was 41 and had helped to keep Pakistani cricket alive during some of its darkest days. But the selectors pressured him to stay on, arguing that the team would need him during its arduous tours to England and Australia.

They were right. His crowning glory was still to come. The team arrived in England following weeks of training with the national army in Abbottabad. “The army people are not getting much salaries, but for this flag and for the Pakistani nation, they want to sacrifice their lives,” Misbah said. “That’s a big motivation for all of us. Everyone is really putting effort in for that flag and the nation.”

Now 42, almost a decade older than any cricketer in England’s side, Misbah fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition by playing in a Test match at Lord’s. In Pakistan’s first innings, he scored a century and celebrated with push-ups on the outfield, in homage to the army’s fitness regime and those who had had the temerity to mock his age.

When Pakistan secured victory a little after 6pm on the fourth evening of the game, the entire team imitated the captain’s push-ups, then saluted the national flag. The applause for them reverberated far beyond St John’s Wood.

“It’s been a remarkable turnaround after the 2010 incident,” Misbah-ul-Haq said, ever undemonstrative.

He would never say as much, but he has done more than anyone else to lead Pakistan back to glory. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt