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 Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.