FOOTBALL and politics, or shall I say, football and crime, can be a deadly combination.
With the World Cup to be staged by Russia in under 100 days, England is seriously considering organising a boycott if the hosts were proved to have been behind the attempted murder of spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in a nerve gas attack in Salisbury.
British ministers have already discussed stopping the President of the FA Prince William attending the tournament as well as blocking official delegations going to games.
Now the nerve gas attack has even led to the prospect of Gareth Southgate’s England squad being withdrawn from the tournament.
A senior Whitehall source told The Times newspaper: “A boycott of the World Cup is definitely one of the options on the cards.”
It is believed England could try and convince Australia, Poland and Japan to boycott the tournament as well. However, its options are limited as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and the USA have all failed to qualify for Russia 2018.
KICKOFF ON JUNE 14
The carnival of football kicks off on June 14 and is seen as the perfect vehicle for President Vladimir Putin to show off Russia’s strength on the international stage. The Russia World Cup is already set to be “the most political and politicised World Cup ever, and maybe the most political and politicised sporting event ever”, says the London-based The Independent newspaper.
Since Russia won the right to host the World Cup in 2010, relations between Russia and the West have plunged to their lowest levels since the Cold War.
British MPs calling for a full England boycott include chairman of the Foreign Affairs select committee Tom Tugendhat MP and chairman of the all-party Parliamentary Russia Group Chris Bryant.
Tugendhat has said it was “extraordinary” the World Cup was being held “in a country that used murder as an instrument of state policy” and said “a boycott should be kept on the table”.
And Bryant added it would be “very difficult” for England football team to compete in the event if the nerve gas attack was a state-sponsored enterprise.
Dr Calder Walton of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government told The MailOnline: “There are grounds to say that much more must be done. A boycott is possibly the kind of statement needed. There’s a good argument to say that England’s participation in the World Cup validates Putin and gives him credibility.”
But there are serious global repercussions, from a football point of view. A boycott would risk breaching FIFA’s tournament regulations, which dictate that “all participating member associations undertake to play all of their matches until eliminated from the Fifa World Cup”.
However, if England were to boycott the World Cup it could lead to them being banned from future FIFA events, including the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Former FA and BBC boss Gregg Dyke does not believe the Three Lions will be kept at home over the summer. He told The MailOnline: “I can’t see the Russians being too worried if a bunch of bigwigs from England decide not to go. The FA pulling the team out would be another matter but I can’t see that happening.”
More seriously, Article 6 of those regulations states that any association that withdraws could face sanctions, “including the expulsion of the association concerned from subsequent Fifa competitions”.
It also says that any association which pulls out “no later than 30 days before the start” of the tournament would liable for a fine of at least 250,000 Swiss francs (£190,513), a penalty that would double if a withdrawal occurred less than 30 days before Russia 2018 kicks off.
FIFA, the world football-controlling body based in Zurich, declined to comment on a potential diplomatic crisis involving the UK and Russia and its implications for England’s World Cup participation.
In my view, a British withdrawal would be unprecedented, although Yugoslavia were thrown out of the 1992 European Championship and replaced by Denmark with just a week’s notice after civil war broke out in the country.
Indeed, the threat to boycott the tournament has drawn a stinging rebuke from the world of football and divided politicians outraged at what appears to be another Kremlin-sanctioned assassination attempt on British soil.
Sports journalist Victor Louis of The Daily Mirror says a boycott “would gain us nothing except bathing in a short-term halo of moral supremacy”. He adds: “I believe this will swiftly followed by a decade or more of regret. There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin cares nothing about western sensitivities. Human rights have long been an afterthought in Russia too.”
Jonathan Arnold of The Sun newspaper feels that “international sporting boycotts can work, no question”. He argues: “Depriving Afrikaaners of Springboks Rugby Union Tests and a place in world cricket was a factor in undermining the Apartheid regime. An international boycott is different from individual nations trying to make a show of their principles.”
Seriously, you should ask this question: Who would benefit from the FA being forced to withdraw from this summer’s showpiece?
Not the FA, especially when England is planning a bid for the 2030 World Cup.
Not Gareth Southgate and his players, prevented from having their chance at the ultimate sporting glory – perhaps, for many of them, their only chance.
In my view, I strongly feel football should not be used to convey political messages.
But in modern-day global unpredictability, football is politics, and football is a political message, some famous politicians use to wield supreme authority.
• Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based football writer with three decades experience who, rather sadly feels, that there are myriad different ways that politics and football are entwined. But a World Cup boycott will do England and global football no good.