2-5: Politics on the Pitch: Operation Double Eagle

[00:00:04] David Goldblatt: Welcome back to Game of Our Lives. I'm David Goldblatt. And with me as ever are Al Jazeera journalist Tony Karon and our producer Raja Shah. 

[00:00:12] Tony Karon: Hello David ready to go. 

[00:00:14] Raja Shah: Hello David. 

[00:00:15] DG: Good to have you with us guys. Now of course the World Cup is happening in Russia but as we keep saying the World Cup is really happening everywhere else in the world. In the public spaces, in the television rooms in people's homes. So a little bit later we're going to be hearing from some of our favorite guests from season one bringing a global perspective on the World Cup. We'll be speaking to Supriya Nair who's calling in from Mumbai and Godwin Enakhena who'll be telling us about the vibes in Lagos ahead of the big game Argentina versus Nigeria. But first today is a very special day. Not only is the temperature higher in Bristol England than Los Angeles, California, but England, yes England, are coming off the back of a 6-1 victory over Panama. Tony, what did you make of that game? 

[00:01:04] TK: Well I had to be absolutely thrilled for you. Absolutely. 

[00:01:10] DG: Very decent of you, very decent of you old man. Jolly good. 

[00:01:13] TK : Yeah yeah yeah I'll give you that. I mean look I think what this is is a brilliant exposition of the value of zero expectations. England goes to the World Cup, nobody expects anything. You had some pretty decent young players and that team just played with a sense of freedom and relaxation. It was just like Southgate said go out and enjoy yourselves. And they did. 

[00:01:32] DG: You know I think it is about expectation but you know call me an old hippie, I think it's also a little bit about love and their disposition and their demeanor as well as the low expectations I think has made it much easier to like this team. I did worry though I have to say a lot of giving the ball away, lot of giving the ball away. One does wonder what will happen when they meet a team that's a little bit more serious than Panama. 

[00:01:55] RS: It was also a very violent game. 

[00:01:57] DG: Violent? 

[00:01:58] RS: I was worried about poor Harry Kane, the Panamanians, how many how many yellow cards were there in that one? 

[00:02:02] DG: Not enough. But there were a lot of yellow cards and it was good to see some penalties given for you know outrageous rugby style tackles. I mean I thought the great thing for me was to see how the England team just brushed all that stuff off. I mean Jessie Lingard gets an elbow in the face after a minute and he just doesn't let it affect him. I thought it was you know the cliche is “let your boots do the talking” and so they did. The other big match over the last few days for me was Germany versus Sweden and there was the delicious possibility that Germany might might just be going into the final game of their group with none. One point would have been stupendous. And then right at the end of stoppage time the inevitable. Tony, how did you experience that Toni Kroos free kick. 

[00:02:51] TK: Well that Toni Kroos free kick was amazing I mean it was a Cristiano Ronaldo moment and you know some people suggest that these guys play for Real Madrid they kind of expect to win everything no matter what. So you know they step he steps up with a real certainty. But what that game was about for me was that moment where your sense of football tradition, football lore comes into conflict with your political and moral beliefs. 

[00:03:14] DG: Elaborate on that for us Tony. 

[00:03:16] TK: Well there's tremendous schadenfreude what a brilliant German word associated with the idea, as you say Germany is going to go out. We are finally going to upend Gary Lineker's maxim that football is a game played by 22 players chasing a ball around a field and then Germany wins. Well this time you were like, wait this may not happen. And that's fantastic. We are upending the established order. But I did start to think, particularly watching Boateng running around the field like a man possessed. Here's a centre back who's playing as a number eight. I mean he's playing as a box to box midfielder desperately trying to take matters into his own hands and change this game and you're thinking to yourself, yes of course because the far right in Germany is going to blame the immigrants for any upset here. If that team goes out it's going to be put on the Turkish players, the players of African descent and therefore getting behind this Germany team is important because it's about inclusion. 

[00:04:08] DG: Let's turn our attention to two teams who really have got problems and one wonders what kind of homecoming they're going to receive. Today we saw the Red Sea Darby which you advocated we watch. Egypt Saudi Arabia both teams having played pretty poorly up to now. Did they do anything to redeem themselves before they go home? 

[00:04:29] TK: No, not really. As a football spectacle it was not very interesting or inspiring but I think the political dimension of this is interesting. The Egyptian regime would have loved a more successful World Cup because a World Cup really makes a population, a nation feel good about themselves. And right now the Sisi regime in Egypt is not offering people very much by way of reason to feel good about themselves. So what this result does actually is leave Egypt stuck in the political and economic squalor that has prevailed since the coup. And in that sense there's not going to be a Salah dividend for general turned President Sisi. So you know politically this World Cup has not helped the Egyptian regime. I think for Mohamed Salah personally, and we've been following that story, you know you really get that sense of him being always manhandled by thugs. 

[00:05:21] DG: What do you make then of the stories and they are no more than rumor at this stage, that he has or is considering quitting the Egyptian national team after this? 

[00:05:30] TK: It's difficult to say we don't have any confirmation of those but you looked at his body language in that game today and he was miserable. He didn't even smile when he scored. And you know you have to think the Egyptian FA has not protected him. Kadyrov drags him out of bed and makes him turn up for a photo opportunity with a strongman who's basically known for, accused of torturing his opponents, accused of terrorizing the gay men of Chechnya. He's just an all round you know nasty piece of work. 

[00:06:00] DG: Kadyrov of the president of the Chechen Republic, yeah? 

[00:06:02] TK: Yeah. Salah is forced to hang out with this guy and be hailed as an honorary Chechen citizen and so on. And you know where's the Egyptian FA? And by the way where is FIFA? With its insistence of keeping politics out of things. How is Salah not protected from this kind of activity and behavior? Exploitation. 

[00:06:19] DG: Answers on a postcard Gianni Infantino. Raja, have you been watching any of the football? 

[00:06:25] RS: Well I mean you know I will say you know Tony you predicted that the Red Sea Darby would be worth watching. David your what to watch from last time around was Serbia Switzerland and you nailed it. I mean that ended up being one of the most talked about matches of the last few days. All of the sudden people are breaking down videotapes of hand gestures as you had pointed out it's the Swiss team that has actually quite a contingent of players from all sorts of backgrounds including some ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Can you guys explain what actually happened? 

[00:06:54] DG: Tony, you, you give this one a roll. 

[00:06:57] TK: OK. Well the former Yugoslav Republic of Switzerland as we call it has always had a strong contingent of players from particularly Bosnia and Kosovo which as we know were pretty brutalized by the Serbs during the wars of the breakup of Yugoslavia. So what we saw in this match was twice when the two goals Switzerland scored were scored by Kosovar-Albanian ethnic players. That would be Granit Xhaka of Arsenal and um- 

[00:07:24] DG: Shaqiri. 

[00:07:25] RS: Xherdan Shaqiri 

[00:07:26] TK: Xherdan Shaqiri. Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke. So in both cases when they scored those goals against you know the old enemy Serbia they ran at the cameras crossed their fists and made the gesture of an eagle which is a signal to everyone who understands Balkan politics of the Albanian flag, the double headed eagle. 

[00:07:45] DG: And indeed the notion of a greater Albania I mean it's stronger than that isn't it Tony? It's not just saying we love Albania. This is saying we are behind the greater Albanian project which envisages a situation where all ethnic Albanians end up in an Albanian state. And certainly that Kosovo which is now majority Albanian is not part of Serbia. And that is very contested. 2008 Kosovo declares independence. Many countries in the world recognise its independence. Many don't. Serbia obviously is one of those. And it's worth remembering the eagle has appeared at football in the Balkans before. So you go back to 2010 when Serbia are playing Italy in Genoa in a World Cup qualifier and they burn a huge Albanian flag in the stands. Number one. Number two. Couple of years back Serbia are playing Albania in Belgrade in a World Cup qualifier. Some Albanian dude gets hold of a drone and flies the drone above the stadium with like a kind of six foot long Albanian double headed eagle flag. Then lowers the damn thing onto the pitch. One of the Serbs grabs the flag to try and take it away. Then two Albanians try and get the flag back off him. Then a fight begins. Then you've got ultranationalist hooligans in the crowd who start storming the pitch and attempting to attack the Albanians as they try and take the flag off. The game is canceled. 

[00:09:17] RS: It's a crazy video if you haven't seen it. You can find it on the Guardian's website. 

[00:09:20] DG: So you know there is this whole what's worth remembering here. Again it's not just the Kosovo Albanians in the Swiss team who are playing symbolic politics here. In the opening game, Serbia beat Costa Rica and the foreign minister Dacic makes a big deal of this saying, this is sweet revenge. All right. Which is for the folks back home. And what that means is Costa Rica is one of the first countries to recognize an independent Kosovo. Much to the chagrin and annoyance of ultranationalists in Serbia. And so beating them becomes this political point scoring. So it's like, the Serbs complain and the Serbs say, oh FIFA this is politics. And then these dudes are playing politics themselves, right?

[00:10:08] TK: Of course. And also the Serbs are really channeling what we could call the Milosevic narrative which is Serbia's always being victimized by referees, by FIFA. You know it's always like poor little Serbia. But the wars for the breakup of Yugoslavia were intimately connected with football. Like literally political divisions and tensions are growing. But it's a Belgrade Zagreb Darby that really kicks off the violence that basically there's this absolute chaotic riot in which you basically have Serb police clashing with Croatian players. And you know this is the moment that kicks off real hostilities not that they wouldn't have happened without the football obviously. 

[00:10:46] DG: I mean remember this is now what coming up for 20 years ago and the real legacy of this of course is that you have a deep and intimate association in Serbia also in Croatia but particularly in Serbia between football ultras and ultranationalist right wing politicians being called out on the streets as muscle. So in that case in 2008 when Kosovo declares independence, there are attacks all over Belgrade on the embassies of countries who are recognizing Kosovo and who's at the front of all of those crowds? Football ultras from Partizan and Red Star. And this is really interesting. This is where social media is so amazing that you can pick this stuff up now. People in Serbia are picking out in the audience at the Switzerland game that the president's son is there. And the president's son is there with a group of Partizan Belgrade ultras. And what are they wearing? T shirts with a map of Kosovo on them and the words, no surrender. Now I think Serbia really are gonna be struggling. I mean if Switzerland get busted, wow what are they going to do to Serbia on the politics and football issue. 

[00:11:56] TK: It's kind of ridiculous. We know that FIFA has these rules that ban political gestures and that they're taking this action. That's what this game is all about. It's about a proxy for the very idea of the nation and for that reason of course all nations have political histories all nations have enemies. And when you play the old enemy you are watching a ritual reenactment that offers you the prospect of some kind of vindication. That's why people are watching this game in their billions all over the world. So for FIFA to kind of pretend, oh there's no politics here is frankly ridiculous. 

[00:12:34] DG: We're talking politics and football today. We're talking the World Cup in the rest of the world. So the perfect guest for that is Supriya Nair. She's a journalist from Mumbai, a keen observer and writer on football and politics, and you may remember her from Season 1. I wanted to know what's it like to be an obsessive football fan in India and who do you back when you haven't got a horse in the race? We spoke on Skype a couple of days ago late night in Mumbai.

[00:13:08] DG: Supriya, welcome back to the show!

[00:13:11] Supriya Nair: Thanks David. I'm really happy to be back and delighted to be talking about football which seems to be the only meaningful thing left in the world. For the first time in years, it feels like football is fun again. 

[00:13:21] DG: Who's been bringing you fun and joy this World Cup? 

[00:13:24] SN: All the Asian and African teams and surprisingly Russia which I didn't expect. Those were not words I expected to be saying at the start of the tournament. 

[00:13:32] DG: No I don't think anybody very much expected to be hearing it. 

[00:13:26] SN: Indeed. So like 19th century Russian mystics I'm choosing to see Russia as an Asian team rather than a European one. 

[00:13:43] DG: Okay that'll go, that, it would be interesting to know how that would go down in Russia. That's an interesting view on it. But I like it. When we last spoke AC Milan was very much part of the conversation, you're very much a fan and a connoisseur of Italy. But of course Italy aren't with us at this World Cup. So I wonder where are you hanging your hat in this tournament at the moment. 

[00:14:05] SN: Gosh if Italy were with us we'd probably have seen a nil nil scoreline before this. 

[00:14:10] DG: Too true. 

[00:14:11] SN: I'm very happy to say that I've been more neutral at this World Cup than I've been at any other one I've seen in my life. And what great performances we've seen from underdogs, from big teams, and the horror shows from teams that we expected to do well. So it's all going down. And in fact I think this is the lovely thing about the World Cup, right? The group stages are indeed the World Cup, to paraphrase something you memorably said once, it's where we all as peoples of the world get to see each other. 

[00:14:38] DG: Sure. Japan, Senegal, Colombia. You know, you don't get a mix like that too often in this world. Let's talk a little bit about the Asian teams. Sure, Saudi Arabia and South Korea have been really deeply disappointing. Who's been good for you? Who's cheered you amongst the Asian teams? 

[00:14:56] SN: I'm not going to say that South Korea has been a total disappointment. Once you've gotten it out of your head that a team you like is going to go all the way, which you have to of necessity I think as an as an Asian fan at this point, you know there are lots of small things to take joy in. And the funny thing about loving these Asian teams is that the idea of Asian solidarity itself in 2018 is such a weird one. This continent doesn't have the history of Latin American solidarity or Pan Africanism that others do and look at our representatives in this tournament. It's Iran and Saudi Arabia and South Korea and Japan. Not exactly models of fraternal cooperation. 

[00:15:37] DG: But at the two ends of the continent. You know in the far East and the far West. And as you say the whole idea, you know culturally, politically, it's hard beyond the AFC, the Asian Football Confederation, to find you know what's holding this whole thing together. 

[0015:50] SN: Tea, rice, genocide. 

[00:15:54] DG: You must have been enjoying Iran, no? 

[00:15:56] SN: Iran have been heartening. I'm nervous for the game against Portugal which is their last match. But it's, the great thing about Japan, South Korea and Iran has been how nimble and crafty they've been physically as teams. Obviously each in very different ways. But to see that kind of strength mentally as well as physically has been really lovely. The enormously cheering thing about the last couple of weeks has been the optimism that these teams have kind of held their own amongst often quite superior opposition and the hope that things will get better. God I mean I can't wait for Iraq which has sort of consistently been decent in topflight AFC Football to just make it to qualifying and play in the United States of America in 2026. 

[00:16:40] DG: Now you are talking. 

[00:16:42] SN: David I have a question for you. Your writing has been on my mind ever since this tournament has begun and we've been getting to the bottom of the difficult question of how to reconcile the authoritarian nationalism and the feeling of joy that the World Cup brings us. Do you really feel like this is still a massive project of normalization for Russia? 

[00:17:01] DG: I think it is a massive project of normalisation and one that's working pretty well. I imagine that Vladimir Putin is rubbing his hands with glee. You know the spectacle itself is splendid. The police are on holiday allowing a transformation of public space, you know vacation time in Russian cities. But it doesn't take that much to look beyond the bubble. There are calls for protests over pension reform which the government has slipped in while the World Cup is going on. In non World Cup cities and there are constant forms of disruption and intervention. However one feels about Albanian nationalism, the fact that these games have become this extraordinary public theater for expressing issues of identity and contestation amongst Croats, Serbs, Albanians and Kosovans, constantly disrupts the narrative of 'this is just normal and everything is fine with the world.' So I think there is a kind of tension there and I think there are also emerging stories of resistance and personal triumph amongst players and teams that you know offer a kind of alternative vision on the world. So my cynicism dial’s pretty high but it's not actually off the scale. There's still room and you know there's also just, I don't know how you're feeling but I'm really feeling the need for some joy in this world. 

[00:08:26] SN: Hmm, I see. I have to say though I think again that the group stages are a great time for us to remember that this game of competing nationalisms and this game among nations is also really the people's game. And so in spite of the fact that I myself live in a country where majoritarianism is taking the joy out of ordinary civic patriotism and replacing it with something more toxic every day, I get it. I get why Egyptians and Tunisians and Panamanians are crying when they hear their anthem in the stadium. 

[00:18:57] DG: And that has been amazing hasn't it. 

[00:18:59] SN: Yeah I celebrate that. 

[00:09:00] DG: I mean Panamanians you know it is, you realize particularly if you live in a country where you know you're pretty regular attenders at the World Cup what a big deal it is to be on the stage. How much it matters that football should function as a public stage to say, hey we exist.

[0019:19] SN: Indeed. 

[00:19:20] DG: Supriya thank you so much for joining us. 

[00:19:21] SN: Thank you David. 

[00:19:26] DG: You can follow Supriya on Twitter at Supriya N. That's S U P R I Y A N. S U P R I Y A N. Tony. It's time to move to Nigeria and today in what is officially Season 1 nostalgia fest, we are bringing back an old favorite for our segment What to Watch. 

[00:19:51] (What to Watch bumper plays) 

[00:20:00] DG: So Nigeria managed to beat Iceland two nil. Argentina are playing badly. They're up against each other on Tuesday. A loss for either team will send them out. Both can still make it through to the Round of 16. But instead of me telling you about it, I want to hear what's going on in Nigeria. So I'm gonna hand What to Watch over to the wondrous Godwin Enakhena. He's a journalist, a broadcaster and the sporting director of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Football Club a Pentecostal church based team that made its way to the top of the Nigerian domestic leagues. He's in Lagos and I talk to him a couple of days ago on Skype.

[00:20:38] DG: Godwin, when I last spoke to you I asked you how will Nigeria do at this World Cup? And you said to me, ask me after the first game. So Nigeria had their first game, they lose to Croatia two nil. Tell me how did you feel about Nigeria's chances once you'd watched it? 

[00:21:00] Godwin Enakhena: Well truth be told the reason I asked you to pop that question again after the game against Croatia was because I knew it was going to be a difficult game. I looked at the team that we have at this moment looking for a leader. You know I couldn't find any big game situations like that. So yes what I expected was what I saw. 

[00:21:18] DG: And then what what changed it around then Godwin because they came out looking like a different team. They beat Iceland 2 0 and they're looking good. So what changed?

[00:21:29] GE: What did we change? I think we knew that we had our backs against the wall. If we didn't beat Iceland we should be packing our bags and bags and back to Nigeria. That's if we're allowed to come back to Nigeria if you know what I'm talking about. So I think that was the secret. We needed to beat Iceland. Yes we won the battle but the war continues and the war that continues is on Tuesday against Argentina. 

[00:21:51] DG: And how do you rate Nigeria's chances? Because this is a very very disappointing Argentina isn't it. 

[00:21:58] GE: David I will not put my smart money on Nigeria between Argentina. That's the truth. Messi is bloodied. Argentina not winning a game at the World Cup would be disastrous. For Nigeria what do we stand to lose? Do we have what it takes? Are we going to have the kind of opportunities that Iceland presented? It is difficult. Like I said I've seen so much of football it's going to be very very difficult. That much I can tell you. We have met them four times at the World Cup and they've always beaten us. We've never beaten Argentina any time Lionel Messi has played. If we don't have Messi, then Nigeria will win. That much I can tell you. We cannot wait to celebrate. Fridges have been stocked. That game is 7 p.m. Nigerian time so we're going to dance and sing into the wee hours of the night. That is if we win. I would believe that we can win. 

[00:22:48] DG: Fingers crossed Godwin. It's been fantastic to speak to you. I dearly hope Nigeria go deep enough in this tournament that we can have this conversation all over again. 

[00:22:57] GE: Something is telling me David that we might just do it. 

[00:23:04] DG: You can follow Godwin on Twitter at G Enakhena. That's G E N A K H E N A. 

[00:23:12] RS: David I was hoping you would ask Godwin about those Nigerian jerseys. They are extremely popular, have been flying off the shelves and now as a result these fake jerseys are proliferating on the streets of Lagos and there's actually even a song about it. Have you guys heard this? 

[00:23:26] DG: I've heard of the song but I haven't heard it. 

[00:23:31] RS: It's called Fake Jersey. It's by Tenni a Nigerian musician and social media star. 

[00:23:32] DG: Play it Raja Shah. 

[00:23:34] RS: It begins with the story of her disappointing trip to the Nike store. 

(Song plays) 

[00:23:43] RS: And now we hear about an extended negotiation with a fellow named Emeka. 

(Song continues)

[00:23:54] RS: It's a straight up jam. You should check it out. 

[00:23:58] DG: I love it. Nike got plenty money and good on Lagos. Get that jersey out. And better still I'd like to see everybody in the fedoras. The team have got an official kind of white suit and fedora with green bandlet. And while the Senegalese are definitely doing the best dancing of the African teams, no one is topping Nigeria when it comes to sartorial elegance. 

[00:24:24] DG: Gentlemen, ladies, everybody out there. We are coming to the end. The group stage is almost over. No more three games a day. So let's get out of here and enjoy it while we can. This show is a production of Al Jazeera's Jetty studios. It was recorded at the Sound Town Studios in Bristol UK. Music is by Bang Data. Subscribe to the show if you haven't already at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Follow us on Twitter, please at Game of Our Lives. It just remains for me to say thank you Tony Karon. 

[00:24:56] TK: Thank you. 

[00:24:57] DG: Thank you Raja Shah our man at the dials. 

[00:25:00] RS: Thanks David. 

[00:25:02] DG: I'm David Goldblatt, and we'll see you on Friday. 

[00:25:06] RS: Well I mean if you commit a crime in front of a police officer I mean, at some point they have to arrest you.

[00:25:11] TK: Oh, Raja your faith in the system is charming.