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Wembley Stadium, London

Sergei Skripal case: Why we should boycott the World Cup

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Integrity Initiative Op-Ed

The UK Government has announced that no members of the Royal Family will attend this summer’s football World Cup in Russia. There is a strong case for saying that neither the England team should take part in the Competition, nor for English fans go to Russia to watch the Tournament.

The Case against the England Team Going to the World Cup:

The attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, using a rare nerve agent, was tantamount to an act of war against the UK. In such circumstances, the participation of the England team in the World Cup looks like a crass example of the football authorities, particularly the Football Association, who are responsible for the team, ignoring the seriousness of the situation simply for financial gain.

The World Cup is the most prestigious event to take place in Russia since the Summer Olympic Games were held in Moscow in 1980. It is bigger than the Winter Olympic Games which were held in Sochi in 2014; before those Games were over, it is now known that Vladimir Putin had taken the decision to seize Crimea from Ukraine by force – a clear act of war against a sovereign state.

Just over six months before the 1980 Olympic Games, the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan, starting a war which lasted for over nine years. The decision to send in the troops was met with anger by the international community. The USA responded in what was a hugely effective way: they boycotted the Games. More than 60 countries followed the lead of the USA. Another 15 countries – including Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain – allowed their athletes to compete, but under the Olympic flag. When an athlete from one of these countries won a gold medal, the Olympic anthem was played and the Olympic flag raised, not the national flag. Soviet TV did not show the flags being raised at such medal ceremonies. This was very embarrassing for the Soviet Union.

It was also a vivid indication of how the protest at the Soviet invasion hurt the USSR. This was the first time that such an international event had been held in the country; it was hugely prestigious and the absence of so many countries – especially the USA – was a massive blow to Soviet pride. The USSR saw sporting events in which their athletes competed against the USA as examples of the clash between socialism and capitalism without a shot being fired. Denying the country the opportunity to do this on home soil was a bitter pill to swallow.

The hosting of the 2018 football World Cup is a hugely prestigious event for Russia. It helps satisfy Vladimir Putin’s ambition to put Russia on the world stage. Anything which were to spoil that image would sting Russia’s pride deeply. In fact, it is difficult to think of any other single action at this stage which would damage Russia’s prestige more. A boycott of the World Cup by the England team would send out the loudest possible signal to Russia and the world that acts such as the murder or attempted murder of British subjects like Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal in the UK will not be tolerated. If other nations were persuaded to join such a boycott, Russia would be shown up as the pariah state it has become under Putin.

The Case against England Fans Going to the World Cup:

England played in the same group as Russia at the European Championships in France in 2016. At the end of the game between the two teams (in which Russia scored a last-minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw) Russian fans attacked the English fans. As became clear, this was not a spontaneous action; in any case, their team had just rescued the match. They had no “excuse” for an angry response to the England fans. What has become known is that among the Russian fans were hundreds of trained fighters, many of them serving or ex-servicemen, who had trained specifically to go to France to attack English fans.

Why the English? The poor reputation of English fans goes before them. Football hooliganism is known in some countries as “the English disease”. In the 1970s and ‘80s, English fans became known for causing trouble at football matches, at home and abroad. (The worst case of violence occurred at the European Cup Final in 1985, when Liverpool fans attacked those of the Italian team, Juventus, causing a wall to collapse and the deaths of 39 fans. English teams were banned from Europe for five years.)

But the violence of the Russian hooligans was not restricted to that night in the stadium. Large groups of Russian fans sought out English fans anywhere. Unlike the English, these young men did not drink to fuel themselves for a fight; on the contrary, they had trained physically for months, remained sober, and equipped themselves with iron bars and even wore gum shields. They went through areas where English fans were relaxing, or watching other games on giant screens, “like locusts” (as the British police in attendance said), attacking anyone who could be identified as English. As many fans were wearing England shirts or carrying the Cross of St George or the Union Flag, this was easy for the Russian thugs.

In February 2018, a Russian who had been identified as a ring-leader of the trouble in France two years previously was arrested at Munich Airport. The unnamed man had been put on an international wanted list by the French police after he attacked a 51-year old Englishmen during the 2016 European Championships, leaving him with brain damage. He was arrested by German police and has been extradited to France. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in jail. Significantly, the Russian was on his way to watch a match in the Europa League between Atletico Bilbao and Spartak Moscow. This was the only match in this season’s European competitions where there has been serious trouble between fans.

English fans attending this year’s World Cup in Russia will be at serious risk of attack from Russian thugs who have been training to attack the English. These men will not care if they kill English fans. English fans cannot expect to receive help or protection from the Russian police.

 

Other threats to England fans:

Russia has a law which bans any “homosexual teaching”. This has been used to allow physical attacks on the Russian gay community. There have been deaths and serious injuries caused as a result. Not only do the police not protect the gay community, they are active in their persecution.

There have also been many incidents of racism in Russia, not only in society but specifically around football. A young Liverpool player, Rhian Brewster, was racially abused by the captain of the Spartak Moscow team, Leonid Mironov, during an Under-19s match in December 2017. (The European football federation, UEFA, did not bring charges against Mironov, as they said that the accusation could not be verified, but they said they believed Brewster had brought the charge in good faith.)

Earlier this year, the attitude of many in Russia to racism was reflected in a tweet sent from the official account of Spartak Moscow. The text accompanying a photo of black Spartak players exercising during a winter break in a hot country read, “Look at our chocolates melting in the sun”.

 

Any England fans who attend the World Cup in Russia will be laying themselves open to serious threats of violence; these threats will be even greater if they are black or if they are, or are suspected of being, gay.

 

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