Graham Stringer MP thinks we'd be better returning their money

Experience has shown us that politics and sport are uneasy bedfellows; like oil and water, they don’t mix. 

Nothing illustrates this better than the demands by some Conservative ministers and Labour backbenchers for a boycott of the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia. This is vacuous gesture politics of the most extreme kind. As a response to the attempted murder on British soil of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, it is pathetic and ineffective. 

In footballing terms, replacing England with Italy (which failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958) might even be seen to improve the tournament. A PR victory, if ever there was one, for Russia. English football fans and footballers, however, would be the obvious losers. This would only satisfy the apparent need of some politicians to use every crisis to signal their own virtue, even if the policy being advocated has negligible impact on the outside world.

Margaret Thatcher tried and failed to enforce a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games after Russia invaded Afghanistan. The British Olympic Association (BOA) put two fingers up to her and, with the exception of yachting and equestrianism, sent a full team to Moscow. The world of sport is richer for the memories of the Coe-Ovett battles in the 800 and 1500 metre events. The FA should follow the BOA’s lead if the Conservative government tries to strong-arm them into staying at home. 

Harry Kane England
England's footballers and fans would be the obvious losers

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t effective responses to Russian attempts to liquidate its former spies on our soil. London, after all, is the laundrette of choice for Russian oligarchs to clean their dirty money. Governments of all colours have chosen to accept the benefits of billions of pounds worth of Russian investments, however dubious the source. They operate a blind-eye strategy to the tidal wave of Russian money flowing into the prime property market and banks in London.

Worse still, just over four years ago, the government sent a green flag message to Putin that these actions were ok by hushing up the details of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. The government’s delay of the investigation into this killing would have been perfectly understood by the gangsters who control Russia. 

The Conservative Party has received more than £3 million from Russian sources since it entered government in 2010

The Conservative Party has received more than £3 million from Russian sources since it entered government in 2010. One of these donations was from Mrs Chernukhin, the wife of the Chairman of a Russian state-controlled bank, and close associate of Putin. It’s not surprising that some Russians feel secure in going about their criminal business in this country.

Rather than asking footballers to sacrifice what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in a World Cup, and forcing fans to miss out on watching England play in football’s premier tournament, the Conservative Party should hand back the £3 million and pass a 'Magnitsky Act'. This would freeze assets, revoke visas of foreign nationals involved in human rights abuses, and be so much more powerful than a feeble boycott. 

Sergei Skripal
A boycott in response to the attempted murder on British soil of Sergei Skripal (pictured) and his daughter is 'pathetic'

If the UK Government and the English FA were determined to boycott the 2018 tournament, it is not difficult to find good sporting reasons. 

Sep Blatter, the previous President of FIFA, confessed that the vote to award the World Cup to Russia had been rigged. England, you remember, spent £21 million (including £2.5 million of public money) trying to get the 2018 World Cup played here. There is overwhelming evidence that the bidding process and selection for both the 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar) World Cups was corrupt. 

It's also possible to argue that England should not compete in a tournament alongside Iran and Saudi Arabia, who between them are responsible for the deaths of thousands of children and civilians in their proxy war in Yemen. 

It is generally not known that England refused to compete in the first World Cups, prior to the Second World War, because they thought the way amateurs were paid for time off work was undermining the Corinthian ideal of competition. However quaint this seems today, when many footballers count their salaries in tens of thousands of pounds a week, at least it was principled. 

The England football team should go to Russia. As usual, they will probably arrive home early, but they should not allow politicians who are too cowardly to take on the Russian oligarchs to use them as an empty gesture.

Graham Stringer

Graham Stringer:

Graham Stringer (pictured above) is a regular columnist for Manchester Confidential and the Labour Member of Parliament for Blackley and Broughton. In the 2017 General Election he gained 28,258 votes - a share of 70.4%. He was elected to Parliament in 1997 for the now abolished constituency of Manchester Blackley. Prior to this he was the Leader of Manchester City Council from 1984-1996. He is one of the few MPs to have scientific experience, as a professional analytical chemist.