Political football

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Media captionBelgian PM gives UK PM his team’s shirt ahead of World Cup clash on Thursday evening

England are through to the knock-out stages of the World Cup despite losing 1-0 to Belgium, and politicians are keen to get in on the action, with variable results.

Ahead of Thursday’s clash between England and Belgium in Kaliningrad, Prime Minister Theresa May was ambushed by Belgian PM Charles Michel who handed her a red Belgium football shirt which ominously had the word “Hazard” written on it.

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is one of 12 players in the Belgian squad to ply their trade in the Premier League, alongside Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, and Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku.

Mrs May says she wants a positive trading relationship with the EU after Brexit, and to keep the door open to highly skilled EU migrants. Perhaps that will include Belgian footballers.

A few hours later, just as the teams were kicking off, Theresa May gave an England shirt to the Belgian PM.

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May has never shown much of an interest in football but she certainly knows her cricket, as she showed in an interview with BBC Test Match special last year.

There is nothing new about politicians trying to capitalise on sporting success – but Brexit may have given things an extra edge.

Irish PM Leo Varadkar, whose country failed to qualify for Russia after losing to Denmark in a play-off, told the BBC he wanted the Red Devils to win, not the Three Lions, on Thursday.

Nigel Farage never misses an opportunity to fly the flag, or visit the pub, so it was no surprise to see pictures of him watching the England game at a Brussels bar.

But when he draped himself in an England flag, handed to him by a friend, the Beer Factory bar, next door to the European Parliament, erupted in boos, according to The Daily Mirror. and European Parliament staff on a nearby table whipped out an EU flag.

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Then there is the generic “come on England” tweet, which seems straightforward enough, unless individual players are co-opted into the message.

The Conservative Party’s official Twitter account posted this just before the Belgium game:

The two men pictured are Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard, who scored against Panama, and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling.

Jesse Lingard’s political views are unknown. But three years ago, Raheem Sterling recorded a video pledging his support to Labour’s Dawn Butler.

Butler, a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, was running to be re-elected as an MP in the part of North West London where Sterling grew up.

The Labour leader is a football fan – he even presented EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier with an Arsenal shirt last year.

But he was accused of making his own World Cup gaffe, sharing a quote by former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly ahead of England’s game against Tunisia.

As many on Twitter were quick to point out, Shankly was perhaps not the ideal person to provide pre-match inspiration for the England football team.

The Scottish legend once said about playing for his country: “It’s fantastic. You look down at your dark blue shirt, and the wee lion looks up at you and says ‘Get out after the English…!'”

Some political World Cup slip-ups are a little more subtle. While the basic rules of football are familiar to just about everyone, using the wrong footballing phrase can give the game away.

Conservative MP Nick Boles threw his support behind a campaign by the Sun newspaper to fly the St George’s flag above government departments during England matches.

But as any football fan will know, the World Cup “play-offs” are a series of matches to determine which teams qualify for the World Cup in the first place – not part of the actual tournament.

The knockout phase in Russia – a series of matches between teams who came first or second in their groups, culminating in the World Cup final in Moscow on 15 July – is never referred to as the “play-offs”.

To be fair to Boles, he said his campaign was about reclaiming the flag and building a modern English identity rather than being about what’s happening on on the pitch.

Football is not his specialism, as he freely admitted in a 2014 tweet:

The Sun’s campaign was successful, and departments agreed to fly the St George’s flag during matches.

The Department for International Trade was so keen to draw attention to this that not only did they tweet about this, but they also emailed journalists to say that they had tweeted about this.

The Labour Party also made a subtle linguistic slip-up in the run-up to the Belgium game.

Jumping on the World Cup bandwagon to criticise Theresa May and her ministers, Labour tweeted that May’s “squad” should be “benched”.

That might be something people would say in American sports commentary, but is not a phrase commonly heard in discussions about English football.

But even if politicians’ 2018 World Cup tweets are sometimes a bit clunky, they don’t quite reach the heights of David Cameron’s 2015 gaffe.

In a speech during the election campaign the former prime minister mistakenly said he was a West Ham fan rather than an Aston Villa fan.

He said he had gone “off script” with the remark and blamed it on a “brain fade”, insisting “I’ve been an Aston Villa fan all my life”.

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