Boycott or Not? England & The 2018 World Cup

by | Mar 15, 2018

Well, the timing of it all has certainly been unfortunate from a sporting perspective. As the United Kingdom and Russia do their level best to make an already tense hold its breath all the more – and assuming, as we do, that the whole of these two countries aren’t reduced to no more than two large piles of radioactive dust within the next couple of months or so – attention has started to turn to the thorny subject of whether the England national football team should boycott this summer’s World Cup finals in Russia.

But before we take a look at this in any greater detail, a small disclaimer. In terms of the politics of all of this, the closest thing that I can muster to an opinion on it all is, “a plague on both their houses.” Vladimir Putin may well be a terrible man and the behaviour of whoever it was that carried out the recent attack in Salisbury is obviously indefensible, but if you’re asking me at a personal level how I feel about it all, I can really offer little more than a hope that this all blows over without escalating into something dreadful. That’s all I’ve got.

The provocative sabre-rattling regarding boycotting this summer’s World Cup finals began in the Daily Mail, who earlier this week posed the question “how can we go to Putin’s World Cup now?” on their front page. Not that their Russian equivalents aren’t doing their bit to ratchet up tensions as well, of course, with the Russian newspaper Pravda talking of the UK and Russia being “on the brink of war” as a result of this particular episode. One might even start to wonder whether all this hyperbolic talk is a useful distraction from political car crashes going on elsewhere.

Not ones to be outdone by the media, politicians have also been diving into the subject, with foreign secretary Boris Johnson telling Russia that it would face a “robust” response from the UK and that it would be “very difficult” to imagine UK representation at the World Cup could go ahead in the “normal way”, Nick Clegg stating that “You can’t carry on sending our teams as normal to the World Cup if it is proven that this was a state-directed attack”, and the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock going a step further in telling the BBC that this summer’s entire tournament should either be delayed or even held in a different country. On top of that, Prime Minister Theresa May has also confirmed that no ministers or members of royal family will attend the finals, not that this makes any difference whatsoever to the rest of us.

Despite the best attempts of FIFA to try and persuade us otherwise, professional football has never been the apolitical beast that they’d wish it to be, and the World Cup finals itself has a long history of countries refusing to take part for reasons both connected to the game and not. In 1934, Uruguay refused to defend their trophy in Italy in protest at the lack of teams from Europe who had travelled to their tournament, held four years earlier, and they repeated it four years later, being joined by Argentina, who had believed that the tournament would alternate between South America and Europe and were angry at having been passed over to hold the 1938 tournament in favour of France.

The story of India being barred from playing in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil because FIFA wouldn’t allow them to play barefoot is an urban legend (they didn’t really think it worthwhile, was the somewhat more prosaic reason for their non-attendance), but Scotland also refused a place after having been offered one. Having quit FIFA along with England in 1920, they rejoined the full international football community after the end of the Second World War, but with the Home International Championships being the qualifying tournament for the 1950 finals, Scotland insisted that they would only travel if they won their group. After being beaten at Hampden Park by England, they declined to take up their place. It has been suggested that this may have been as much to do with the cost of travelling to Brazil as pride, and England’s disastrous performance once there may have given some Scottish onlookers a smile of satisfaction at the fact that their team didn’t make the trip.

In 1958, the issue was Israel. Placed into the Asian qualifying competition, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt and Sudan all in turn refused to play Israel, who were then made to play one qualifying play-off against Wales (because FIFA rules stated that only the hosts and holders could qualify without playing a match), which they promptly lost. Eight years later, the entire continent of Africa refused to take part in the tournament in England in protest at only one finals spot being given to the whole of Afrca, Asia and Oceania. With only five Asian teams applying to enter, the Asian qualifying competition became something of a farce. South Korea withdrew because they couldn’t travel to North Korea. South Africa – who were in the Asian competition because they’d already been expelled by the Confederation of African Football) were disqualified over apartheid. The Philippines had their application rejected. In the end, the entire qualifying tournament for Africa, Asia and Oceania came down to a two-legged match between North Korea and Australia, which was comfortably won by North Korea.

The most visually arresting boycott of the tournament came in 1973. Following the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile a few weeks earlier, the USSR and Chile were due to play each other in a playoff for a place in the finals. After playing a goalless draw in Moscow, the USSR requested that FIFA switched the return leg in Chile from the Estadio Nacional de Chile in Santiago because it had been used to detain and execute political prisoners. The Chilean FA were reportedly happy to do so, but the new government, keen for a symbolic “victory” over communism, insisted that it was played there, and FIFA’s wretched Stanley Rous agreed. Despite all of this, the Chilean team still had to take to the field and walk the ball into an empty goal without opposition in order to claim the win (which was recorded as a 2-0 walkover) in front of a crowd of 15,000 people and banks of photographers. Stanley Rous was bundled out of FIFA and replaced by Joao Havelange the following year, and deservedly so.

The Russian response to this chitter-chatter has followed the bizarrely provocative and near-childish tone that has been seen elsewhere since this story broke, with the Russian foreign ministry commenting that, “They [the English] cannot forgive Russia for winning the rights to host the 2018 World Cup instead of them”, which feels from here completely out of step with where opinion actually lies. If anything, annoyance at FIFA over the bidding procedures for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups has largely centred on the 2022 tournament. There are definitely people who will be giving the tournament this summer a swerve on account of a range of different criticisms of Russian policy, but the media narrative regarding these processes has not felt particularly focused on Russia, and even many who felt that the 2018 bidding process may have been similarly tainted to that for the 2022 tournament would probably agree that the FA’s case for England hosting the 2018 tournament was weak enough for the FA’s enough to not be seriously considered, regardless of any other considerations.

Public opinion on whether England should withdraw or not seems split, at the moment. As if to prove that there isn’t anything that we’re not roughly 50/50 divided on these days, a poll on the Sky Sports website currently shows 52% supporting the team being withdrawn altogether. Largely, though, reaction from within the sports press and football-watching public has felt like one of bemusement rather than anything else, whilst the FA itself has confirmed that it will only withdraw the team if instructed to by the government, presumably mindful of the fact that boycotting this tournament would almost certainly lead to expulsion from the 2022 tournament.

Much of what comes to shape public opinion has yet to be seen – it’s worth remembering that this “crisis” only began last weekend – will likely be influenced by what happens at a governmental level over the forthcoming days, weeks and months. If the language of the last few days is anything to go by, though, it’s difficult to imagine at this moment in time what will end the feeling of mutual hostility between the two countries. Is the Russian government realistically going to admit to this attack? Well, no. No they’re not. Is this British government at this time likely to tone down its rhetoric over this matter? Well, it doesn’t seem likely, really, does it?

For England supporters who may have been planning to travel to Russia this summer, it would have been understandable had reservations over travelling there already been long established in the mind. The events of Marseille in 2016 – a Russian “supporter” was charged with attempted murder charge there this week on account of the horrible events of those few days – likely dissuaded many from bothering to make the journey, and those of the last few days will likely have dissuaded a few more. Will those from this country intent on causing trouble have been dissuaded? It’s probably impossible to say. The only advice that might be offered to any England supporters who do make the decision to go anyway would be to be careful and to try to to stay safe. From a personal perspective, it isn’t where I’d be choosing to spend my holidays, this summer.

For those amongst us – the vast majority – who will watch the tournament from our sofas, any boycott decision is nuanced in a somewhat different direction. On the one hand, boycotting is easier. All you have to do is switch the television off and do something else instead. On the other, though, boycotting the 2018 World Cup from the sofa will make no difference to anything whatsoever. Television advertisers may get annoyed at the value of their commercials plummeting, but the matches are all on free-to-air television, so subscription levels for pay broadcasters won’t be affected and the Russian reaction to it all would likely be little more than a mildly amused shrug of the shoulders. Refusing to watch the tournament from home would be entirely understandable as a point of principle but, with the best will in the world, it’s difficult to see what it would actually achieve.

But let’s fast forward to the summer, on the assumption that we haven’t all been bombed back to the neolithic era by then. Let’s assume that England – and England alone, for the purposes of this theoretical scenario, despite the fact that several other countries have also stated over the course of the last few days that they might consider boycotting it as well – don’t turn up to the tournament after the government demands that the FA withdraws the team. What happens? What realistically happens? Well, it’s likely that – presuming that the decision is taken so close to its start that FIFA can’t draft in a replacement in, as UEFA did with Denmark for the 1992 European Championships – each team that would have played them would receive a walkover win, England would likely be barred from the 2022 World Cup, and the FA would receive other censure, but other than that… the rest of the tournament would most likely plod along regardless. It would make a point but, as mentioned above, that point would come at a significant cost to the FA.

Back in the present, what’s likely to happen over the next few days is that newspapers will cotton on to the fact that this is a story that will attract a lot of clicks, which will likely result in all manner of columnists – and it’s important to remember that not all of them would be particularly interested in the game anyway – expressing their anti-Russian sentiment in increasingly florid and outraged ways, for money. But will the media take that hit? It may not quite be the big deal that it was, but the World Cup finals remain a pretty much a nailed on draw for traditional media. If the Daily Mail – or whoever – wants to nail its mast so firmly and quickly to this particular flag, then they should do so now. And they should stick to it. No coverage whatsoever. If “the principle of the thing” is that important to them, this is the least they should do.

Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the whereabouts of the England national football team at the World Cup finals this summer is a relative sideshow in comparison with the possibility of events unravelling elsewhere. There is little doubt that MPs are – or at least will be – turning up the heat on the FA to withdraw the team from the tournament, but the FA should try to resist these calls while they continue to come from parliament’s more rabid back-benches. Despite the opinions of those who nailed their flag to a mast as soon as what happened became apparent, though, to have reservations about the British government’s doesn’t make one a “supporter” of the Russian government over this matter. It’s perfectly valid to stay out of the “who’s right and who’s wrong” side of the argument and to merely hope that we will all still be here in the summer, whether England are competing in the World Cup finals or not.