Politics and sport should never mix is the hoary old chestnut — but they always do. It’s a thrilling concoction. In just under three weeks, the World Cup kicks off in Russia and while I can’t vouch for the quality of the footie, the whole extravaganza is likely to be edge-of-the-seat stuff. At the end, Vladimir Putin will either be grinning like a creamed-up cat or grinding his teeth in rage, lamenting about what might have been.
Never has there been a backdrop quite like this. A couple of months ago there were calls (including from Alan Johnson, the former Labour home secretary) for England to boycott the tournament altogether.
This wasn’t to save us the pain of going out on penalties in the quarter finals, but because the host nation had just been accused by our Prime Minister of poisoning an ex-spy and his daughter with the deadly Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury.
For a second or two it looked as if Putin might at least pick up a yellow card. ‘While we agree that sport can help build metaphorical bridges, as long as Putin is blowing up real ones in Syria we cannot pretend this World Cup is just like any other major sporting event,’ MEPs said in an open letter, moving swiftly on from Wiltshire to Douma.
As the pace quickened, Boris couldn’t wait to come off the bench and immediately upped the tempo by comparing the Russian World Cup with Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, saying he would hold Moscow responsible for the safety of England fans.
Those fans won’t be getting much assistance from the consular staff in the British embassy in Moscow; most of them have been booted out as part of the tit-for-tat expulsions. Meanwhile, the England gaffer, Gareth Southgate — who apparently watches Newsnight as well as Monday Night Football — has reminded fans they are ‘ambassadors for the country’ as much as the team.
In other words, it might be wise not to sing ‘Ten German Bombers’ while draping the St George’s Cross over public spaces in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, the site of the bloodiest battle of the second world war, where an estimated two million German and Soviet soldiers lost their lives.
As it happens, England play their first match in this evocative city, where an 85-metre statue erected in 1959, ‘The Motherland Calls’, commemorates the fallen by depicting a woman brandishing a sword.
It doesn’t help that England fans were attacked by marauding Russians armed with iron bars in Marseilles at the Euros two years ago, or that Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre has warned that extremists linked to Isis are using social media to incite violence during the tournament.
Sunni militants, including Russian jihadists returning from the Middle East, are seen as the main threat. Thousands, mostly from the North Caucasus, have come back from fighting in Iraq and Syria and are reportedly ready to use this chance to assert themselves after two failed bids for independence from Moscow in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Fanatics last week promised to behead, among others, Cristiano Ronaldo and issued a mocked-up photo with a caption that read: ‘The ground will be filled with your blood.’
The Foreign Office has said attacks are ‘very likely’ and warns generally of ‘anti-British sentiment’, while the White House has ratcheted up the tension by saying that if England supporters get into difficulty ‘we just won’t have the wherewithal [to help]’.
President Trump, meanwhile, seems to have eyes not on this tournament (understandable, given that the US failed to qualify and it’s not what Americans call football) but the one in eight years’ time, which North America is bidding to host. Its main rival is Morocco, and in his inimitable style the Donald has fired off a threatening tweet warning US allies to use their votes wisely. ‘It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the US bid… Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us?’
I’ve covered a few World Cups and Euro Championships and have always been grateful for the safety of the press seats (though the Argie scribblers did not take kindly to the man from the Express slamming his desk with delight when David Beckham scored a penalty against Argentina in Japan’s Sapporo Dome in 2002). This time, all and sundry will be subjected to X-ray scanners, metal detectors, surveillance cameras and barking dogs once the beautiful game gets under way at the Luzhniki Stadium on 14 June.
Notwithstanding any of this — or George Orwell’s line that football is ‘war minus the shooting’ — World Cups are drama of the highest order and I can’t wait for the off. There’s a strain of fanaticism in us all and it’s no bad thing to let it out every now and again as 22 men with dodgy haircuts kick a football about for 90 minutes. Never mind the international politics, London cabbies and white vanners will get into the spirit with their fluttering flags; pubs will roll out the bunting and the PM will be asked by an unknown backbencher to wish the team well as they set off in their M&S suits.
The England squad is one of the youngest and most inexperienced ever sent to a major tournament. So you might assume that expectations have never been lower. That’s not how it works on Planet Football. In some sort of reverse logic, it’s precisely because our boys are so inexperienced that they are thought to be in with a chance.
We haven’t reached a final since 1966, but England never goes into a World Cup without the ‘we can win it’ hype rising to fever pitch, although we almost always field a team of second-rate hackers and crash out.
This time, however, I can’t help thinking we might pull it off. An against-the-odds triumph in Mother Russia in 2018 would appeal to God’s sense of irony, as well as the English sporting genius. Remember, it was only thanks to a Russian linesman that we won the final against Germany in 1966. Wouldn’t it be sweet, after the Novichok, if we went ahead and won Putin’s World Cup?
Mark Palmer and Martin Tyler on Russia 2018.