Let’s not play ball with political grandstanding – do we really want to boycott the World Cup?

Image credit: МИД России

With Anglo-Russian relations plummeting to Cold War chilliness in recent weeks, the prospect of an English boycott of the World Cup has swiftly shifted from hypothetical speculation to a very real possibility. Already, Russia’s dubious suitability to host such a politically high-profile and culturally significant event has been severely cross-examined; critics have highlighted a spate of pre-existing human-rights and moral problems that threaten to taint the beautiful game next June.

However, with the Russian-linked poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal on UK soil symbolising, for many, a direct attack on British values, the prospect of an English boycott has now been thrown into even sharper political relief. Amidst a rallying of resistance against the Russian Federation, Boris Johnson has outlined plans for the royal family and government ministers to snub the tournament. With predictable overstatement, Johnson made parallels with Nazi Germany and declared his wish to take no part in Putin’s jingoistic glorying in the World Cup in a fashion redolent of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Meanwhile, Labour MP Stephen Kinnock has gone one step further, urging FIFA to consider “moving the World Cup to 2019 and having it hosted in a different host country”.

The intransigent rhetoric trumpeting from Westminster certainly begs the question of how realistic, or indeed successful, an English withdrawal from football’s most prestigious competition would prove, let alone a complete postponement and relocation at such short notice. Despite a palpably russophobic national temperament, it remains to be seen whether the footballing public would support the sacrifice of the most anticipated moment in our sporting calendar.

Theresa May will surely cast an eye back to the precedent of the Spain 1982 World Cup when the flare-up of the Falklands War prompted discussions of whether the home nations of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland should pull out of the competition for fear of being drawn against Argentina and the resultant prospect of rioting. At that time, the minister responsible for sport, Michael Heseltine, stressed the necessity of being prepared to boycott the tournament at short notice but suggested that pulling out would signify a “moral victory” for the Argentinians. He went on to argue that he would have “no powers to ban sporting contacts” anyway. The line between sport and politics, after all, is a thin one, but a boundary that should be demarcated as distinctly as possible nonetheless.

Purists will posit that politics and football should be unconditionally divorced, emphasising qualities of camaraderie that hark back to matches held between German and English infantrymen during the 1914 Christmas truce of World War I. Whilst this is an admirable ideal, it is important to recognise that as football’s global brand mushrooms it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the sport as a singular entity able to transcend the socioeconomic conditions within which it operates. FIFA’s well-documented corruption and the Brazilian government’s perceived culpability for poor performance in Brazil 2014 provide obvious examples of this fact. In such a climate, it seems impossible to ignore the politicisation of this World Cup and vital to condemn, as explicitly as possible, Russia’s actions. Football’s apparently apolitical complexion cannot be used to shroud more deep-seated issues – both within the UK this month, and on the topics of LGBT rights, racism, sports doping and the anxiety over transparent democracy inside Russia’s own borders.

And yet, the shameless appropriation of Russia 2018, and by extension football, for the promotion of political agenda, the incessant grandstanding from politicians who, one suspects, wouldn’t know their offside from their silly mid off, does leave a bitter taste. Boris Johnson’s decrial of Putin rings increasingly hollow when you begin to consider his own links to Russian money, playing tennis with the wife of one of Putin’s ministers for a cool £160,000 donation. Just as the notion of pulling out of Spain 1982 felt like a moral concession to Michael Heseltine, a complete withdrawal from the tournament this summer would feel like a further slap in the face of our national identity. Not to mention harsh on the athletes who have worked so diligently to earn their place on the plane. It is impossible to understate the importance of taking an uncompromising stand against the current regime as they take the limelight in June. But even if it is proven beyond doubt that the nerve-agent used in Salisbury was Russian, it is unlikely that the current government wields enough clout to initiate a wider boycott of the competition and so England’s absence would cause minimum disruption. Thus, we are most defiant, not by using football, like Putin, as an illusory force giving the impression of action from an unstable and insecure government. We are most defiant by proving that we are not cowed by Russian action and simply playing ball in the face of such intimidation.

Realistically, a boycott would punish the 24,000 England fans who have already bought tickets far more than it would Russia. But, having said that, it is overwhelmingly likely that even if the national team plays as expected, fans will be strongly advised against making the trip east for their own well-being. With the tensions that already saw brutal clashes between English and Russian ultras at the Euros increased tenfold and the British consulate in St Petersburg being forced to close, safety concerns will be critical. Many fans will need no guidance from the government to cancel their plans for their own security.

So, while some diehard members of the barmy army will not be put off, perhaps the most meaningful boycott will be by we the people: the fans, not travelling to Russia and therefore implicitly not supporting the Russian hostship, neither financially nor ethically. As president of the FA, Prince William, along with diplomatic entourage, would normally be expected to make an appearance at any World Cup and his absence will be noted. But as Conservative MP Matt Hancock points out, the biggest middle finger we could possibly wave at the Kremlin would be to send the three lions over roaring in full chorus. As far-fetched as it seems now, lifting the trophy on 15 July in the heart of Moscow would surely be far sweeter retribution than pulling out, waving a righteous white flag, before proceedings have even begun.

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