The whole world has been taken aback by the sudden decline in diplomatic relations between two major powers the United Kingdom (UK) and Russia. The breakdown in bilateral ties began in the wake of a recent attempt on the lives of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Viktorovich Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, by use of a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury. The boiling diplomatic row between football's 'top dog' England and the FIFA World Cup (WC) 2018 host nation Russia has put the Greatest Show on Earth in some form of jeopardy, among other developments, of late.
The UK has been blaming Russia for the attack. Prime Minister Theresa May said, "The Russian state was culpable of the attempted murder. Many of us looked at a post-Soviet Russia with hope. We wanted a better relationship and it is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way." On March 14, she confirmed that the politicians and members of the British royal family would boycott the ensuing WC that is scheduled to begin in Russia on June 14. England is scheduled to play their first game at the tournament on June 18, against Tunisia. Other countries in the same 'Group G' include Panama and Belgium. May declared, "There will be no attendance by ministers - or indeed members of the royal family - at this summer's World Cup in Russia." Members of the British royal family have regularly attended the WCs over the years with the likes of Princes Harry, William and Charles representing their country.
Accused Russia has denied all involvement in the occurrence, which has led to heightened political tensions, with both victims still critically ill in hospital. Mr Skripal and his daughter were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury city centre on March 04. The former Russian spy acted as a double agent for the UK's intelligence services during the 1990s and early 2000s. He was convicted by the Russian government of passing secrets to MI6 in 2004, but given refuge in the UK in 2010 as part of a "spy swap".
All these happenings were taking place days ahead of Russia's presidential election, the first round of which began Sunday (March 18, 2018). Analysts and observers think that the Skripal case galvanises President Putin's conservative base and boosts votes to enable him for yet another term.
Mr Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian member of the parliament who stands accused of the 2006 murder of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, said May's decision to point the finger at Moscow so quickly was "at a minimum irresponsible". In 2007, Gordon Brown kicked out four Russian diplomats in protest at Putin's refusal to extradite Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the two perceived assassins who put polonium into Alexander Litvinenko's tea. The Russian foreign ministry expelled four British diplomats in response.
Mr Putin is likely to react badly to May's ultimatum on this occasion. The UK's ambassador to Moscow, Laurie Bristow-the deputy ambassador at the time of Litvinenko's murder-is vulnerable. The international media reported that UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats on March 15 with Russia retaliating through expulsion of the same number of diplomats from their territory on March 17. Additionally, the Kremlin may take action against the BBC. When relations plummeted over Litvinenko, Moscow closed the St Petersburg office of the British Council and accused its director, Stephen Kinnock - now a Labour MP - of drunk-driving.
Analysts say the use of nerve agent will be seen as a brutal calling card. It was inevitable that the poison would be discovered, with a trail leading straight back to Moscow. The UK government was told that the nerve agent used was from a family of substances known as Novichok. In Russian, the word 'Novichok' means 'newcomer' and applies to a group of advanced nerve agents developed in secret by then Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. BBC says one chemical - called A-230 - is reportedly five to eight times more toxic than VX nerve agent, which can kill a person within minutes.
Since May's comments in parliament, the breakdown in relations between the two countries has led to a diplomatic row that is reverberating across the world. Tensions are escalating to the point where questions have now been asked over whether the English men's team will take their part in FIFA's flagship competition set to begin within three months. Question is also there as to how a looming British boycott will affect the entire tournament.
President Putin during a FIFA function at the stunning State Kremlin Palace in Moscow on December 1 last year pledged Russia will do everything it can to make WC 2018 a grandiose sports festival so that the event is remembered as a celebration of sports and top-notch competition. He said, "We will do everything to turn it into a magnificent sports festival. But more importantly, to see it cements further the large and tight-knit international sports family - a family, which values most of all the sport itself, friendship and fair competition - the things that stand unmoved by any political considerations."
As doubts are emerging over the involvement of England at the WC 2018 in Russia following the Theresa May government's boycott decision, the Football Association (FA) as regulator has moved to clarify the organisation's stance on England travelling to the WC. It issued a statement to explain that it would work closely with the government on the issue. Released on the same day as May's comments, the statement said that the FA's priority is "to ensure the safety and security of the fans, players and staff."
Some politicians have also weighed in on the matter with Labour Co-op Member of Parliament John Woodcock suggesting that the UK's allies in NATO should support the boycott. However, NATO members include the likes of Belgium, Germany, France and Spain, who, like England, are also major players in the world of football. It remains to be seen whether other countries will join the UK in their boycott of FIFA's showpiece event, but it is possible. Spanish newspaper AS reports that FIFA is in a 'state of panic' over the escalating tensions because the threat of more nations following suit puts the event at risk.
The history of WC, however, has been marked by a variety of boycotts on different reasons. The inaugural hosts and winners of the competition back in 1930, Uruguay had refused the invitation to participate in the following edition, which was held in Italy in 1934. Interestingly, the reason for the rejection was in protest at the lack of teams to travel from Europe in 1930. England, as well as Scotland, Wales and Ireland, also declined the opportunity to compete, preferring to play in the now-defunct British Home Championship.
Uruguay continued its protest against the WC in 1938 and it was joined by fellow South American nation Argentina, who was left reeling when France was awarded the hosting rights ahead of them. While it was not strictly a boycott, the case of India and the 1950 WC is worth mentioning here. FIFA interestingly ruled that India would not be allowed to play barefoot and the myth went that the ruling was the reason for their non-participation. It was, however, found afterwards that India did not feel the tournament was worth playing in.
Also, the 1966 WC in England was boycotted by an entire continent - Africa - when the Confederation of African Football (CAF) objected to what they felt was a systemic unfairness in the allocation of places in the final tournament. Teams from Africa were expected to compete with teams from Asia and Oceania for a single place, so the CAF withdrew teams from qualifying in 1964. Considering that there were 10 teams from Europe, four from South America and one from Central America, the CAF may have had a point.
The fate of FIFA WC 2018, in the wake of recent tensions boiling between two European heavyweights UK and Russia, will become clear in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, we are faced with a reality when politics is taking its upper hand over sports. The world conscience, however, continues to weigh in the hope that the Greatest Show on Earth will be spared from the clutches of brutal politics in this particular case thanks to prudent diplomacy from within the countries concerned. And thus the football WC will hopefully live up to its expectation as the most prestigious football tournament as well as the most widely viewed and followed sporting event across the world - exceeding even the Olympic Games. There is a small piece of information we can finish with - over one billion fans tuned in to watch the final of last FIFA WC in Brazil, with the competition reaching a global in-home TV audience of 3.2 billion people and an estimated 280 million people watched matches online or on a mobile device, in a sign that more and more fans are embracing new technology for sports content globally. Mere politics should not deny these people of their right to amusement of the grandest kind!