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We cannot let football act as a smokescreen - we must postpone the World Cup

6 min read

Since I first spoke out and called for FIFA to postpone and relocate the World Cup I’ve been met with a torrent of disgruntled tweets, many from Russian bots, saying “sport and politics don’t mix, leave the World Cup alone”.

 While I can understand that sentiment, I’m afraid it is total nonsense. It is a cliché that allows us as fans and spectators, sports federations, owners, sponsors and administrators to relieve ourselves of any social or moral responsibility.

We frequently celebrate the power of sport as a means of social change: be it Jessie Owens in Berlin, the sporting boycotts of the apartheid era through to the 1995 South African rugby victory. The UN even has an International Day of Sport for Development and Peace.

This does beg the question: why are we are willing to celebrate the power of sport for change in retrospect and in glossy FIFA adverts, but loath to do so at the very moment where it could be utilized to make a difference?

And let’s be clear: Putin wants to use this World Cup to showcase and legitimize his regime. Putin is an accomplished sportsman himself - he’s a black-belt in judo, and enjoys playing ice hockey. He truly understands the power of sport as a vehicle for nation branding, and for projecting a positive and upbeat image of himself and his government.

Billions of roubles have been invested in preparing Russia to host the tournament, millions of Russian football fans are greatly looking forward to hosting the World Cup, and most see Putin as having played a central role in securing the tournament. If you doubt that I’d advice that you cast your mind back to the state sponsored (FSB directed) doping ahead of Sochi and the way in which the Kremlin propagandists used it to bolster the regime.

And this is why expulsions, sanctions and a UK Magnitsky Act are not enough. They will all have an impact, but there is absolutely no doubt that one of the strongest ways in which to fundamentally undermine the Putin regime is through the World Cup.

The withdrawal of the international football community from the World Cup would therefore do far more to undermine the Putin regime than any number of expulsions, visa bans or sanctions can ever do.

And make no mistake, this could have happened on the streets of Berlin, Paris or New York. An attack on one is an attack on all. That is why it is so vital that Theresa May must now build an international coalition to engage with FIFA.

The first rule of any retaliatory action is that the target of the retaliation must feel significantly more pain than the source, so a unilateral boycott by the England team simply would not work. The Russian government would simply snort derisively, with a ‘no skin off our nose’ response.

And the second rule is consistency. So, can someone please tell me, where the hell is the consistency in us taking the retaliatory measures that the Prime Minister outlined on Wednesday, and then three months later trotting off to Moscow to take part in a festival of football? It’s an absurdly inconsistent approach, which serves only to undermine our credibility, and indeed the credibility of the entire international community.

If the World Cup does end up taking place in Russia, then come June the Putin regime will be laughing at us, make no mistake about it. “Look at the Brits”, they’ll be saying. “All that huffing and puffing, all that bluff and bluster. But when it comes down to it they’re all talk and no trousers.”

That is why, instead of the world flying out to Moscow in 84 days, we should hold the World Cup in July-August next summer, after the Women’s World Cup, which is taking place in France through June 2019.

This would mean delaying the start of the European domestic football season, but that is not unprecedented. The Latin American football season runs, in Brazil for example, from May to December, and so pauses for the World Cup every four years. If Latin America can pause mid-season for the World Cup, then Europe can start the domestic season a few weeks later to avoid us legitimizing a state that has just sponsored the first offensive use of chemical weapons in Europe since the Second World War.

Having been head of the British Council in St Petersburg through the aftermath of the Litvinenko assassination, I am acutely aware of the intimidation to which our people could be subjected to by the Russian security and police state.

And so aside from the moral hazard of legitimising and bolstering Putin, I worry about the safety of fans at this year’s World Cup. England fans are already prime targets for Russian hooligans, and all Brits, particularly England fans, are likely to be easily identifiable while out in Russia (the badge on an international football shirt is a pretty good clue as to where a fan is from). The anticipated expulsion of UK Embassy and consular staff by the Russians, therefore, risks leaving our citizens out in Russia for the tournament at risk of being under-protected through a tournament at which they may be vulnerable.

Some will say that taking this action would set a dangerous precedent, but surely it is Russia that has set countless dangerous precedents? For how much longer will we allow the Russian state to set the precedent of committing indiscriminate murder on the streets of Britain? For how much longer will we allow the Russian state to set the dangerous precedent of conducting cyber-attacks on our NATO allies? For how much longer will we allow the Russian state to enable the massacre of civilians in Syria? For how much longer will we allow the Russian state to invade sovereign nations such as Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan?

And so now is the time for us to take a stand. We must clean up our act at home: clamping down on dirty Russian money in the UK, be it in sport, property or elsewhere. Kremlin allies like Roman Abramovic have used football to protect both their money and reputations for too long, and we must put an end to that.

But we must also make an international statement. We cannot allow Putin to use the World Cup as a smokescreen for his crimes and those of a KGB/FSB-GRU state. FIFA claim that they seek to use international sport to “embody the highest ethical values and beliefs”. I think that we should see the Russian World Cup as the test of that lofty rhetoric.

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