'World Cup boycott is the only way left to punish Russia'

For some people in Russia, the proposed diplomatic boycott of the World Cup and ongoing talk that some teams should skip the tournament altogether are the only means left to punish them.

There have been sanctions in place against the country since the 2014 military intervention in Ukraine which the general population has had to contend with and the World Cup represents a big, high-profile target for Western ire.

The Salisbury spy poisoning, which the UK government is pinning firmly on the Russian state, has served to worsen what was already an increasingly tense relationship between Russia the West.

“I think it’s the only way they can punish Russia now,” says Alexander Zotov, CEO of the All Russian Football Players Union. “We already have a lot of sanctions in place against the country.

“That’s why it’s being attacked. This theme is coming up all the time. It’s something where you can hurt Russia.”

In the past few years there has been that Russian incursion into Crimea, accusations surrounding the shooting down of Flight MH17, alleged interference in the US elections and the Brexit vote, ongoing support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria but it appears the attack on Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Plenty of British politicians have since spoken out against the World Cup being held on Russian soil this summer.

Just last week, the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson even remarked that the prospect of President Putin “glorying” in the World Cup like Adolf Hitler did at the 1936 Olympic Games made him nauseous.

Boris Johnson

“I always admired the guy and then all of a sudden he becomes so aggressive in this rhetoric towards Russia,” says Zotov. “It’s not something that a politician of his level should use.

“Several years ago, it was not possible that we’d hear something like that but now everybody is trying to speak out in the most aggressive manner as possible. And Boris Johnson outdid himself last week.”

You would have to search hard to find a Russian family which does not count among some 24 million war dead a relative who served against the Nazis on the frontline or died in the struggle against them.

It also worth bearing in mind that Putin’s own father fought against Hitler’s armies and the president’s brother perished during the Siege of Leningrad.

But Johnson’s comments nonetheless provided more evidence that Russia is now firmly the officially designated enemy.

“I’m switching on different channels from the UK or from the United States or EU countries and they are all saying Russia, Russia, Russia,” says Zotov. “It’s Russia all the time. It’s 24 hours, seven days a week. It’s nonstop.”

Krestovsky Stadium St Petersburg

This week brings the news that more than 100 Russian diplomats are to be expelled from some 23 countries around the globe in response to alleged Russian involvement in the spy attack.

Imagine a world in which a day after the Grenfell Tower fire last summer Russia was leading a charge to have scores of British diplomats expelled.

While the people of Kemerovo are coming to terms with the shopping mall fire which killed at least 64 people and more than 200 animals on Sunday, Britain’s calls for EU and NATO allies to expel Russian diplomats gather steam.

“The world is becoming like a volcano and unfortunately countries are becoming more and more aggressive to each other,” says Zotov.

Anything goes in the current information war and it was inevitable that the World Cup was going to be dragged into it.

“There was the same hysteria before the Sochi Olympics that’s happening now,” says Zotov. “We expected that closer to the World Cup it could be more and more tense.

“[But] I don’t see any problems with anybody coming; neither the teams nor the fans. The stadiums are getting prepared, the cities are getting prepared and the people are getting prepared.

“The speculation about Russia’s involvement in a lot of bad things around the world is just creating an atmosphere of fear.”

Prince William Arsene Wenger FA Cup final 2017

Britain, though, is already refusing to send any dignitaries to the tournament. It has been since joined in a diplomatic boycott by Iceland.

There is a prevalent train of thought that Prince William’s attendance would somehow be a legitimising of the Putin regime in the wake of his election victory.

But a team’s or a diplomat’s presence at any sporting event needn’t be an endorsement of the host government and its alleged misdeeds.

“It’s not like Russia is bad and all the world is good,” Zotov adds. “Issues of geopolitics are happening around the world."

Participation in the 2012 London Olympics, for example, wasn’t seen as approval for the UK’s manoeuvres in Libya the year before.

“You can see the pressure is mounting,” Zotov says. “Russian diplomats will be expelled from a lot of countries now. And the outcry for boycotting the World Cup is happening every day but let’s see. It’s worrying.”

Moscow Red Square

Zotov, who grew up in the United States, also admits to being concerned about the potential dangers that lie in store should the current situation continue to deteriorate.

“Russia and the States had more agreements signed during the Cold War than they have now. Now it’s the other way around, all the treaties are being broken.

“America and Russia are stepping away from all these treaties and this makes the world a more dangerous place. We have to see and find ways to come together and not to run apart and think of each other in terms of prejudice.”

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Ticket applications from the UK for this World Cup are well down on the numbers from Brazil four years ago. But for Zotov, one of the main ways in which the balance between east and west can be restored is for supporters to come and take a look around for themselves.

“People should get this prejudice out of the way,” he says. “Come and see for themselves what Russia is and Russians are about.”