By Simon Green
In the current political situation in which Russia and the UK find themselves, following the much talked about poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, there has been a debate around whether the England football team should attend this summer’s World Cup, due to be held in Russia.
While it has already been confirmed that British dignitaries will not attend the tournament, such as members of the Royal family, as to protest against Russia’s recent actions on UK soil, is it really necessary to withdraw the English team from the most-anticipated tournament international football has to offer?
If it were on political grounds, then the answer is resoundingly no. While the UK government has every right to express its outrage at Russia, this is not a political event. While the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has stated that it could be a stage for Putin to project his political power on the world stage, as the famed 1936 Olympic games provided a similar platform for Hitler, this seems more than unlikely.
The event is run by FIFA, and thus the Russian government would have no say in how games are broadcast. And, as has recently been shown by Pep Guardiola’s fine for supporting the Catalan independence movement during a match, world football does not stand for any political meddling. One would imagine that given the immensity of the audience – 1 billion people watched the 2014 World Cup final – FIFA’s vigilance in avoiding political statements will be greater than ever.
If the boycott were to take place under concerns for safety, then this obviously would be a more acceptable objection. As England manager Gareth Southgate hinted last week in stating that he is happy for his family to travel with him to Russia, it seems unreasonable that the team itself would be under any threat. Security around them will be immense, and while it does not seem that Mr Putin has much regard for morality, surely even he would see the risk of persecuting a sporting team as too great. There would be no political gain in threatening athletes, only grounds for further international condemnation and pointless provocation.
The real concern here should be the fate of English fans travelling to the country. The 2016 European Championships showed how easily tensions between the two sets of fans can be sparked, in which riots between English and Russian fans in Marseille, which is a real cause for concern. While that was on neutral territory, if history were to repeat itself this summer, it seems that fans will be at much greater risk in Russia itself. Therefore, a travel ban on English fans would perhaps be a wise option, especially with no British diplomats in Russia.
Despite this rightful concern, and whilst I agree that safety should be the utmost concern of the FA and security officials, isn’t defiance the most pertinent weapon that we have at our disposal?
This is after all, an international sporting tournament. There is nothing which disarms political malcontents than sport, surely? Just think of that famed football match between German and British troops in No Man’s land on Christmas Day of 1914. Or, more recently, the joint-Korean teams fielded at this year’s Winter Olympics. Sport is possibly the only thing that eliminates, at least temporarily, the complications and fears of political relations. On the field, one can appreciate the skill of an athlete regardless of their nationality.
If we were to deny England’s best footballers their chance to perform on the biggest stage, we would be rejecting the chance to show the world that sport can transcend the political, and that Russian political aggression cannot change that. It is therefore essential that Southgate’s men get on the plane to Russia. And even though they’ll no doubt be on the first plane home, they will have shown the power that sport can have.