Boycotting the World Cup would hit Russia where it hurts

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It is heartening news that Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey has now left hospital, and one hopes that he is on the way to a full recovery after having been poisoned with a nerve agent sent from Russia. Meanwhile, in the corridors of power, the 27 heads of government meeting in Brussels have agreed that it is “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the Salisbury attack. The EU ambassador has, as a consequence, been recalled.

Yet at the same time, we need to remember that not everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. Certain European nations are less unsympathetic to Russia, and Mr Juncker recently congratulated Mr Putin on his assuming a new term of office.

These diplomatic manoeuvrings will only have a certain resonance; the sanctions, already in place, and perhaps new ones to come, may well continue to bite, but in the popular consciousness, nothing will be more effective in punishing Russia than sporting sanctions. In this matter, we need to remember our recent history. Nothing hurt the white supremacist regime in South Africa more than international sporting boycotts. And nothing made the British talk about South Africa (and we all did, back in the day, incessantly) as much as the sporting question, starting with the famous case of Basil D’Oliveira.

The Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014 went ahead as planned, and everyone tried to pretend nothing of note was going on in Ukraine, when this was clearly not the case. This sort of charade must not happen again.

The forthcoming World Cup is the perfect opportunity to show, on a popular level, that Britain, and all civilised countries, are outraged by the Salisbury incident. Fans can boycott the event by not travelling to Russia, and the England team could make an eloquent gesture by not taking part.

That would be a sacrifice on the part of the team and football fans: but consider the opposite scenario. What if the England team and the England fans were to go to Russia and pretend all is in fact well, or that somehow Salisbury does not matter? Anyone who thinks that could be acceptable needs to remember Mr Skripal and his daughter, still in intensive care, and DS Nick Bailey. Moreover, the Russian response so far to the Foreign Secretary’s comments of the forthcoming World Cup make it clear that this is one topic on which they are sensitive. We must end the idea of Russian impunity. Sporting sanctions, popularly chosen, are one way to start.