THREE STORIES IN THE KEY OF: GOOOOOOOOLLLLLLL!

Half of humanity tunes in to the World Cup every four years, making it the single most watched event on the planet. True, most people probably see it as an escape from the tumult and tensions of global politics. But we at Signal are incorrigible nerds who just can’t help it… So here are three big political stories that, while watching the World Cup, we JUST CAN’T UNSEE.


Anti-establishment upstarts: Brexit. Trump. Duterte. Five Star. Mahathir (sort of), insert your example here, but knocking the establishment off its perch is all the rage in global politics these days and, at least so far, this World Cup is no exception. For one thing, perennial powerhouses Italy (which has won four cups) and the Netherlands (a reliably strong team which has been to the finals the most times without winning) inexplicably failed even to qualify.

Now, in the early days of play, we’ve already seen some startling upsets: Mexico beat defending champs Germany, causing an actual earthquake back home, and tiny Iceland, playing in its first world cup ever under the direction of a part-time dentist, managed a tie against mighty Argentina (cue jokesabout how Argentina has big trouble with tiny islands). Throw in Portugal wrestling Spain to a draw, and the Swiss doing the same to tournament favorites Brazil, and disruption is in the air.

Still, a lot of World Cups have kicked off with some upsets — but in the end, a small group comes out on top: in fact, since 1950, just one final match has been played without Brazil, Germany, Argentina, or Italy in it. And who could forget English football god Gary Lineker’s famous definition of football as “a simple game, in which 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and in the end, the Germans win.” Will that idea hold, or is another expert opinion about to get sent off?

Spy games: The World Cup is a contest among nations and all nations spy on each other, full stop. Some are just better at it than others.

A few weeks ago, a random Swedish fellow showed up at the South Korean team’s training facility in Austria, pretending to be a “tourist.” They kicked him out. So he drove up a nearby mountain overlooking the pitch and paid a local couple to let him set up shop in their house with a telescope and a camera. His mission: record and report on Korea’s tactics in order to help the Swedes win in their upcoming World Cup match.

Of course, the only thing that trumps good intelligence is better counterintelligence — so to confuse the Swedish tourist/mountaintop-peeper, the South Korean coach switched his players’ numbers from practice to practice because, he said, “it is very difficult for Westerners to distinguish between Asians, and that’s why we did that.”

Sweden defeated South Korea 1–0 on Monday.

The (hi)stories in the rosters: World Cup players must be citizens of the countries that field them, and yet dozens of them weren’t actually born under the flags they play for. The story of the moment there, of course, is that the debate about immigration and naturalization is setting fire to politics in the US and Europe almost daily (see Germany above).

But there’s also a broader historical sweep written into these rosters:

The legacy of French colonialism in the dozens of French-born players who have gone to play for Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia, where they have family ties.

The anguish of the former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s, reflected in the number of ethnic Serbian, Croatian, and Kosovar players on Switzerland’s roster.

The story of how a booming post-war West German economy would ultimately transform German society by admitting hundreds of thousands of low-wage Turkish “guest workers” in the 1960s, among them the grandparents of Germany’s (and Arsenal’s) star midfielder Mesut Özil.

World history written in the rosters of the World Cup. What other stories do you see here?

Legislators in 8 US states have recently passed laws to limit abortions, thrusting the contentious issue into the center of the country's political debate ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The bills are intended, in part, to force the US Supreme Court to revisit its landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision, which gave women the right to choose to terminate pregnancy. Here's a look at how other countries around the world regulate abortion at the national level, as well as a region-by-region snapshot of how prevalent the practice is today, compared to 30 years ago.

Last week, as trade tensions continued to rise between China and the US, the Trump administration landed one of the heaviest blows yet on Beijing, moving to severely restrict the Chinese tech and telecoms giant Huawei's ability to do business with American firms.

What happened? Two things: The Trump administration formally banned sales of Huawei telecoms equipment in the US. More importantly, it also prohibited American firms from selling their technology to Huawei without a special license.

Why? It's complicated. Technically, Huawei was blacklisted from acquiring US technology due to alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran. But the US is also concerned that Huawei could allow Beijing to spy on or disrupt data flowing across the next-generation 5G data networks of the US or its allies. President Trump may also believe the moves will give him extra leverage in his broader fight with Beijing over trade and technology.

The fallout is already starting to hit. Here's where:

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An Austrian politician got drunk with a Russian woman in Ibiza a few years ago and said some things that have now broken up his country's government.

That's right, over the weekend the German press released a video secretly recorded on the Spanish resort island just before Austria's 2017 elections, in which Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), tells a woman posing as the niece of a Kremlin-connected Russian oligarch that if she donates money to his party, she'll get lucrative government contracts.

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Direct(ed) Democracy In Russia – After thousands of people protested the construction of a new cathedral in a nice park in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth largest city, President Putin weighed in to stop construction until a popular referendum can be held. What does that tell us? Well, for one thing, Putin is probably a little more sensitive to public unrest after seeing his approval rating pummeled by a botched pension reform last year. But more to the point, this is a nice illustration of how democracy works in Russia: the new tsar orders accountability to happen when and where it suits his interests.

The Size of Modi's Election Victory – Eight different exit polls released over the weekend show Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP party comfortably ahead in the country's 6-week national election. Voting ended on Sunday, with final results due on Thursday. How big will the BJP's margin be? In 2014, the party won the first outright parliamentary majority in India in 30 years, but after mixed economic results and rising concerns about sectarian tensions, the BJP went into this election on shakier ground. We're watching to see if Modi heads into his second 5-year term emboldened with another majority, or if he's forced to cobble together an unwieldy coalition of parties in order to govern.

What We're Ignoring: Cash for Peace and a Southern Switcheroo

The Deal of the Millennium – President Trump has a plan to secure peace between Israel and Palestine. That plan is: buy it. The administration announced over the weekend that it will hold a "economic workshop" in Bahrain in late June to get Gulf and other Arab states to funnel aid to Palestine, in exchange for which the Palestinians are expected to drop their long-held demands for an end to Israeli settlements, the designation of East Jerusalem as their capital, and (some form of) formal statehood. We're skeptical that cold cash will solve one of the most intractable conflicts on earth. Also, it's not a great sign that the Palestinians themselves don't even plan to attend.

Don't Cry for Veep, Argentina – With her country in crisis (yet again), Cristina de Fernández Kirchner, the controversial left-wing populist who ran Argentina between 2007 and 2015, is increasingly well-positioned to return to power in elections later this year. But over the weekend she pulled a surprise move, announcing that she'd be running only as vice president, allowing former aide Alberto Fernández, whose politics are seen as somewhat more moderate than hers, to top the ticket. We get that it's an electoral strategy meant to broaden Kirchner's appeal among centrist voters, but let's be serious: if the ticket wins, only one Fernández will really be running the country – AND SPOILER: IT'S NOT GOING TO BE ALBERTO.