I am praying that English authorities see sense and don’t withdraw their football team from this summer’s World Cup in protest at Russia over the Salisbury spy poisoning. If they need a solid reason to go, I’m giving them 15:
1. First and foremost, a boycott will never work. Will spies be erased from the face of the earth because of a World Cup pullout? No. Will countries stop hunting, harming and killing rival spies and double agents? No? Will international espionage come to an end? No.
2. England players have given everything just to play in Russia this June, and many will be too old to appear at the 2022 World Cup. They will feel hard done by if their country decides to boycott the tournament. You might think Russia should be punished, but it is naïve to assume that the British authorities would escape the wrath of players and fans alike if they pulled out. A boycott would be totally unfair to both, and also to the rest of us looking forward to a feast of international football.
3. A pullout could well trigger a retaliatory boycott by Russia and perhaps its political allies at a future World Cup. This could set the stage for tit-for-tat actions. The injustice to athletes and fans will spread across the world.
4. It is international politics that created the spies, and it is politics alone that should deal with the consequences. It’s unfair that the rest of us have to pay the price for the actions of politicians.
5. As of now, England is generally perceived as the “victim” of the latest spy incident. A World Cup boycott would flush that victim status down the toilet. Strategically and politically, a boycott is a bad idea.
6. An England-led boycott would escalate what is now a bilateral diplomatic spat into a global quarrel. Russia, which is in the dock, would be able to say: The jury is still out, but look who’s jettisoning due process and politicising the verdict.
7. No disrespect to victims of the latest spy intrigue, but it’s hard to believe that the likes of Britain or the United States have never harmed enemy agents. And if Hollywood movies are anything to go by, innocent bystanders are regularly caught in the crossfire of espionage. Yet we never hear of boycotts suggested in retaliation when innocents are killed by spies, do we?
8. Russia and its political allies could retaliate by boycotting other big sports events such as Wimbledon. That might give the likes of Andy Murray a better chance, but the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament would lose much of its aura. And England hosts plenty of other big sporting tournaments, too.
9. Few people miss the Cold War, but many frightening features of that era would return and, before we knew it, the “iron curtain” that lifted overnight would fall just as quickly to divide the world once again. Nations would feel obliged to either take part in an event or ignore it, according to their international allegiances. Again, Russia can say forget the spy attack and see who brings back the Cold War.
(For those too young to have experienced what the Cold War was like, here’s analogy. Citizens of the world were divided into Romeo on one side and Juliet on the other, with governments playing the disapproving parents who were adamant that everything they did was right.)
10. England can win this World Cup. It’s not likely but it’s not impossible, either. A boycott will shatter that possibility for the next four years and maybe longer. English children obsessed with the likes of Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson probably won’t be blaming Russia if their stars never make it to Moscow.
11. England likely won’t win the tournament, but wouldn’t it be nice to thrash Russia on the football field? Imagine the immediate boost for national morale after such a victory, and then compare it with the drawn-out wrangling caused by a boycott. Sometimes sport is the best arena to work out international tension.
12. It will make little sense if England boycotts the World Cup and leaves numerous English fans struggling to watch the matches via streaming services, whether legal or not. In a worst-case scenario, Russia could facilitate free, live broadcast of the whole tournament just to spite the English authorities.
13. Neither lawful nor illegal broadcasts would cure a nationwide depression among English football fans.
14. Fifa could simply ban England from a future World Cup if the country boycotts this one.
15. A return of sporting boycotts could herald a new Cold War and speed up the trade war. These two combined would provide the conditions for something far worse – another world war.