Boycotts are nothing new to the World Cup, but to snub Russia this summer would be worthless
The Salisbury poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter has served to heighten tensions between Russia and the West. More nations have united in solidarity with the United Kingdom as over 100 Russian diplomats have been expelled from 23 countries. Yet debate remains over what to do regarding the 2018 World Cup, which is being held in Russia this summer.
It has been reported that up to six nations could boycott this summer’s competition. Poland, Iceland, Denmark, Australia, and Japan have all reportedly considered withdrawing from the World Cup. Australia’s government have since said that the Socceroos will be competing this summer. What is more likely is that more nations could announce a state boycott of the World Cup. Theresa May has already announced that no ministers or members of the royal family will attend any official events. Iceland have shown their support for the UK by announcing that their government representatives will also not attend. The calls for nations to boycott this year’s World Cup are certainly not unprecedented. In fact, threats of boycotts and countries withdrawing from international competitions litter the history of modern football. This is not even the first time that Russian president Vladimir Putin has been embroiled in such an issue.
It has been suggested that a complete boycott of the World Cup would be an effective way to punish Russia. History shows that boycotts in the world of football have been an effective way of forcing change. But unfortunately in this case, it is not so simple. Russian money has rooted its way into the core of English football, along with so many areas of Britain’s modern economy. If the aim would be to punish Russia, then a World Cup boycott would fall short of the mark.
World Cup boycotts go back as far as 1934 and the second ever edition of FIFA’s flagship tournament. The inaugural winners, Uruguay, withdrew from tournament in Italy to protest the lack of European teams who bothered to travel to South America four years prior. In 1982, the UK flirted with the idea of a World Cup boycott out of fear of playing Argentina while in the midst of war in the Falklands. Environment secretary Michael Heseltine, who was also responsible for sport at the time, famously declared that the government had “no powers to ban sporting contacts.” England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland were allowed to compete and were all knocked out before getting the chance to play Argentina.
As recently as 2012, there were calls for nations to withdraw from the European Championships, which were being held in Ukraine and Poland, in response to the imprisonment and mistreatment of former Ukrainian MP Yulia Tymoshenko. An outspoken critic of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Tymoshenko was imprisoned on alleged corruption charges, and underwent a hunger strike to protest the conditions under which she was held.
German chancellor Angela Merkel raised concerns about about Tymoshenko’s treatment, and the governments of Austria and Belgium announced they would not be attending the tournament that summer. But president Yanukovych had a powerful ally in Russian president Vladimir Putin, who defended his Ukrainian counterpart and criticised the calls for a tournament boycott. "In absolutely every case, you can't mix politics, business and other issues with sport," Putin told Russian news agency Novosti. "I stick to the principle professed and supported by the International Olympic Committee - sport is outside politics."
The concern was that by other governments attending the events in Ukraine, they would be legitimising a regime which restricts the human rights of its political opponents. A similar train of thought is that if Prince William was to attend the World Cup this year, then he would be legitimising the Putin regime and his recent reelection. German officials said their attendance would depend on the release of Tymoshenko. She would not be released until 2014. President Yanukovych would be removed from power in the 2014 Euromaidan uprisings. He now resides in Russia under the protection of Putin.
But could a World Cup boycott force change? Perhaps the most effective footballing boycott came in 1966 when the tournament was snubbed by an entire continent. Only one country would be able to qualify from Africa, Asia, and Oceania combined for that year’s World Cup. When FIFA refused to compromise, all 15 Confederation of African Football nations refused to compete. Two years later, FIFA unanimously voted to allocate Africa and Asia their own World Cup spots. Africa have been present at every World Cup since and now have five spots in the 32-team tournament.
In 2018, the issue is more complicated. Britain and Russia are now so inextricably linked that to boycott the World Cup would be to only scratch the surface of potential sanctions against the Putin regime. Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire owner of Chelsea, is a close personal friend of Vladimir Putin and was one of the first people to recommend him as a presidential successor to Boris Yeltsin. Likewise Alisher Usmanov, a 30 percent shareholder in Arsenal, is a friend of Abramovich and also has personal ties with Putin. Bournemouth have a wealthy patron in Russian oligarch Maxim Demin. Aeroflot, a Russian airline, are the official carrier of Manchester United.
Russian oligarchs are engrained in English football. The UK government has considered seizing Russian assets in Britain, but that could complicate an already messy situation. It would seem that you could take the Three Lions out of Russia, but you cannot take Russia out of English football. If England pulled out of the World Cup, Russia would simply shrug. A government which has never concerned itself with standing in unity with the western world will not feel snubbed if we did not attend a sports event in their country. And when we consider how much Russian money is bound up in English football at home, a World Cup boycott would be merely a half-measure. Sport, its fans and the message of unity which the World Cup espouses would be the ultimate victims of a World Cup snub.