Clamour grows for England World Cup boycott

Not playing ball: Putin is said to prefer judo and ice hockey to football. © Getty

Are sporting boycotts a good idea? Amid the fallout from the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter, some are calling for England to skip this summer’s World Cup in Russia.

As soon as a Russian ex-spy and his daughter fell gravely and mysteriously ill in Salisbury, many suspected the Russian state of poisoning them. Yet no aspect of this curious incident has stirred more debate than a passing comment by Boris Johnson.

On Tuesday, the foreign secretary described Russia to MPs as a “malign and disruptive force”. Johnson then suggested that, if the Kremlin were found responsible for the incident, England could pull out of this summer’s World Cup in Russia. His colleagues swiftly clarified that he was referring to British officials, not the footballers themselves. But the damage was done.

Fans howled with anger. Sky pundit Gary Neville called Johnson a “useless fool”. Some MPs criticised the idea of a boycott; others backed it. The proposal made the front pages of the tabloids. It emerged that Whitehall officials are considering warning fans not to attend due to security concerns.

Since Russia was awarded this year’s World Cup in 2010, its image has been tarnished on the world stage. Vladimir Putin’s regime has invaded Ukraine, interfered with overseas elections, and been found guilty of systematically doping its athletes. A survey last year found that seven in 10 Americans have an unfavourable view of Russia — a record high.

For all these reasons (as well as corruption scandals at Fifa), there have been calls in the past to avoid this World Cup. It would not be the first boycott of its kind. After Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, the US convinced 65 nations to skip the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In retaliation, Eastern bloc countries avoided the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

The World Cup has seen controversies of its own. The 1966 tournament, which England won, was shunned by the whole of Africa. The continent was furious that it had to compete with Asian and Oceanian countries for just one place. Two years later, Fifa offered a guaranteed place for an African nation in future cups.

Should the England team sit this one out after all?

Storm in a World Cup

Don’t mix sports with politics, say some. Global sporting events are the only times when the world’s nations meet in a spirit of fun and fair play. Boycotts threaten this precious peace. In any case, England is just one nation. Its absence from the World Cup, while annoying fans over here, would barely be felt in Russia.

How pessimistic, reply others. Boycotts have to start somewhere. If England pulled out, other nations might follow. That could trigger real change — look at Africa’s success after 1966. Even if nothing changed, England could take pride in having put principle before fun. Let’s face it: the team isn’t going to win the tournament anyway.

You Decide

  1. Should your country boycott the World Cup?
  2. Can international sports change the world?


  1. Watch Fifa’s video in Become An Expert. Can you do better? Write a detailed plan for a new promotional video for the tournament.
  2. Draw a timeline of relations between Russia and the West since 2010. Mark on it the 15 most important events, in your view.

Some People Say...

“Boycotts tend to make the shunned more popular.”

Milo Yiannopoulos

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The World Cup will take place from June 14 to July 15. Thirty-two countries will participate. England’s first game will be against Tunisia on June 18. Its odds to win the tournament are around 16/1; the favourites are Germany, the current world champions. This will be the first World Cup to use the controversial video assistant referees.
What do we not know?
Which British “officials” will go to Russia. It is common for royals, politicians and football officials to attend World Cups — Prince William, who is the president of England’s Football Association, has done so in the past. He officially has “no plans” to go this year; it remains to be seen whether Johnson’s boycott will happen. The UK government has not yet identified a culprit behind the suspected poisoning.

Word Watch

Russian ex-spy
Sergei Skripal was imprisoned in Russia in 2006 for working as a double agent for the UK. He was later sent to the UK as part of a prisoner swap.
The Kremlin
The medieval fortress in Moscow where the Russian government is based. The name also refers to the government itself, much like “Westminster” in the UK.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland failed to qualify for the tournament.
The area of London that is home to the civil service — the sector that develops and implements the government’s policies. The name also refers to the civil service itself (see “The Kremlin” above).
A survey
By Gallup.
Corruption scandals
Senior Fifa officials have been embroiled in bribery and other scandals for years. The FBI started investigating the organisation due to suspicions about the bidding process that led to the next two World Cups being awarded to Russia and Qatar.
Eastern bloc
The socialist states of central and eastern Europe before the 1990s. The term generally refers to the Soviet Union plus its satellite states.


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