We don’t yet know who poisoned Sergei Skripal, the former Russian double agent, and his daughter Yulia, or why. At best, they both join the unfortunate trend in which people who displease the Russian government display a remarkably clumsy tendency to ingest things they shouldn’t, like poisons, radioactive isotopes or bullets.
Asked about suspicions of Russian involvement, the Foreign Secretary told Parliament yesterday that
‘…if things turns out to be as many members of the house may suspect that they are, I think we will have to have a serious conversation about our engagement with Russia. And for my own part I think it will be very difficult to see, thinking ahead to the World Cup this July, I think it would be very difficult to see how UK representation at that event could go ahead in the normal way.’
The Foreign Office has since suggested that he was referring to official delegations and ministerial attendance, but the remarks certainly seemed to raise the possibility of a boycott of the World Cup.
Johnson’s condition for action, the words “if things turn out”, left plenty of wriggle room to wring hands and eventually do nothing. The whole way in which such things are often done is designed to provide deniability, and Russia in particular habitually throws chaff whenever it is accused of anything untoward.
But the real question is why England was ever planning to attend this World Cup in the first place. Putin’s Russia is a gangster state – openly hostile to the UK, routinely oppressing dissidents in its own country, actively helping Assad to slaughter civilians in Syria, mounting major cyberattacks in this country and against our allies – a “malign and disruptive force”, in the Foreign Secretary’s words.
Even before the Skripal case, the Kremlin was responsible for the murder of a British citizen on British soil, Alexander Litvinenko, and there are reasons to be concerned about several more unusual deaths. When Russia’s militants in Eastern Ukraine shot down flight MH17, they murdered a further ten British citizens.
Given those facts, why is the Football Association merrily going along to a World Cup which offers Putin and his colleagues a propaganda victory?
Sporting luminaries like Gary Neville seem to think that international sporting events are somehow separate from politics and diplomacy – the former assistant manager of the England team asked yesterday “why bring football into it?” while attacking the Foreign Secretary as “a useless fool” for daring to question attendance at the tournament.
But this is a fantasy: states do not spend a fortune on winning and then hosting such events out of the goodness of their hearts, or purely innocent enthusiasm for the game, they do so for political advantage. In particular, states like Russia, run by tyrants like Putin, see World Cups and Olympics as a chance to strut on the world stage. Governing bodies like FIFA encourage these expectations, and coincidentally it is alleged that various states are willing to pay handsomely to, ah, ensure a favourable hearing when hosting decisions are made.
No doubt plenty of sports stars tell themselves that they’ve got nothing to do with politics while providing the central attraction for the propaganda extravaganzas of deeply unpleasant states, just as various popstars tell themselves they’re just little old entertainers when they get paid to serenade dictators at their birthday parties, but at best that is ignorance and at worst it is self-justifying falsehood.
Consider campaigns like Show Racism The Red Card, or Neville’s own organisation Sustainability in Sport. They are founded on the recognition that football stars have a platform – they are famous, rich and watched by millions, and, rightly or wrongly, plenty of people do listen when they choose to speak up. It’s peculiar to say that they have a responsibility to help to drive out racism, or to champion environmental sustainability, but then claim their sport is totally separate to wider ethical and political concerns when it comes to taking part in a World Cup hosted by a hostile state responsible for murder being committed in the UK. National teams have an even greater responsibility to consider their actions, given their exalted positions.
The FA most probably dislikes events like the attack on the Skripals generating questions about whether the England team should be taking part in Putin’s World Cup. If they wanted to avoid them, they should have decided not to take part in the first place – there was already more than enough evidence of the nature of the regime whose propaganda they will be aiding. The Kremlin knows sport can aid politics, and the convenient pretence that the two are separate only helps them get their way.