In Depth

Russian spy attack: could England boycott the World Cup?

There will be no British MPs or royals in Russia and there are questions over the England team’s participation this summer

The United Kingdom’s diplomatic crisis with Russia has spilt over into the world of football with questions surrounding England’s participation at the 2018 Fifa World Cup this summer.

Russia will host the spectacle from 14 June to 15 July with Gareth Southgate’s England team set to face Tunisia, Belgium and Panama in Group G. England kick off their World Cup campaign against Tunisia in Volgograd on 18 June. 

In parliament yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. Then today at Prime Minister’s Questions, May announced that no MPs or members of the Royal Family will attend the World Cup in Russia. 

Following the incident in Salisbury, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told MPs that Russia would face a “robust” response from the UK and that it would be “very difficult” to imagine UK representation at the World Cup could go ahead in the “normal way”. 

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock yesterday told the BBC that the World Cup should either be delayed or even held in a different country. While former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said: “You can’t carry on sending our teams as normal to the World Cup if it is proven that this was a state-directed attack.”

No change to England’s World Cup plans

So could England actually not travel to Russia? Sky Sports News reports that England will still go to the World Cup unless the Football Association (FA) are “told directly” by the Government that they should not attend. 

Labour MP John Woodcock told BBC Radio 5 live yesterday that England’s participation in the World Cup “ought to be in question”, but former FA executive director David Davies said he was opposed to any boycott. 

Davies said: “I don’t think the idea of pulling the team, or encouraging the FA to pull the team out of the World Cup on its own is seriously being considered at the moment, but times change of course.”

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Paul Hayward says that fears over a Russian World Cup are “real and justified”, but if England boycott the event it would be “counter-productive”. 

Hayward said: “The Football Association needs to at least discuss the doomsday scenario of England withdrawing, as a precaution, because the Sergei and Yulia Skripal scandal is only going to escalate.”

Russia: boycott would be a ‘blow to the sport’

ESPN reports that the Russian foreign ministry has hit back at the boycott threat and said that the UK wants to “punish” Russia over the spy attack. 

The Russian foreign ministry told news agency Interfax: “Skripal’s poisoning, for which the investigation has not even begun yet, is being used by British politicians to draw conclusions about Russia’s involvement. So now they want to ‘punish’ us with a World Cup boycott.

“We want to emphasise once again that such provocative statements that fuel anti-Russian hysteria only complicate relations between our countries and are a blow to the sport.

“We have repeatedly warned that before the start of the World Cup in Russia, the Western media will launch a full-scale media campaign to discredit Russia and undermine its credibility as hosts.

“As we expected, the English are especially active in this. They cannot forgive Russia for winning the rights to host the 2018 World Cup instead of them, which was a fair decision after a fair election. Now the British media are actively calling for a boycott of the upcoming World Cup.”

Fans’ views are polls apart

In a poll currently on the Sky News website, 52% believe that England should withdraw from the World Cup; 30% say it would achieve nothing; 13% believe the team should go, but officials should stay away; while 5% don’t care about football. On Sky News’ Twitter poll it was a different story with 44% of the 7,300 voters saying a World Cup boycott would “achieve nothing”. 

In the Telegraph, Hayward says that a joke currently doing the rounds is that “England will protest by leaving at the group stage”.

On a more serious note though, if England do boycott the 2018 finals they could face being banned from the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.

The Telegraph reports that a boycott would “risk breaching Fifa’s tournament regulations”. The rules dictate that “all participating member associations undertake to play all of their matches until eliminated from the Fifa World Cup”.

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