LONDON: Britain’s diplomatic boycott of the World Cup in Russia over a nerve agent attack in southwest England is back in the spotlight after a new case of exposure to the same poison in the same area.
Even as the team advances in the competition and ahead of the quarter-final showdown against Sweden on Saturday, the VIP stands have lacked the usual smattering of royals and ministers.
Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this year announced the boycott after blaming Russia for the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury — an accusation that has been strongly denied by the Kremlin.
London reiteratered the stance this week as it demanded answers from Russia over how two Britons were exposed to the same Soviet-made Novichok toxin.
“The World Cup is not about politics and political leaders,” security minister Ben Wallace said on Thursday when asked how events in Salisbury might impact on the World Cup.
He added the England team was “being looked after by many kind Russian members of the public” while its fans were “getting good support” in Russia.
“That should not detract from the issue that we believe Russian state carried out this attempted murder back in March.”
Moscow has reiterated its innocence and shot back that Britain owed it an apology.
‘Heavy traffic’ of foreign VIPs
The Salisbury poisoning — the first use of chemical weapons in western Europe since Second World War — overshadowed the build-up to the biggest sporting event Russia has hosted since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.
Amid a flurry of diplomatic expulsions between Britain and its allies on one side and Russia on the other, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson even appeared to suggest a possible boycott of the tournament by the England team.
Officials soon clarified that this would only impact officials and dignitaries attending the tournament — not the squad.
The Kremlin reacted furiously, however, after Johnson agreed with a suggestion from a lawmaker that President Vladimir Putin would exploit the event as Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler did the 1936 Berlin Games.
When May announced Britain’s diplomatic boycott a limited number of countries, including Iceland, Poland, Sweden and Denmark, said they would follow suit — to differing degrees.
Icelandic leaders skipped the tournament altogether, after indefinitely postponing all bilateral meetings with Russia.
High-level officials from Sweden and Denmark boycotted the June 14 opening ceremony, but ministers have since attended games.
Moscow has done little to hide its pleasure at the effective failure of a bigger diplomatic boycott of the event.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov correctly predicted a “heavy traffic of guests at the highest level” coming to matches.
Numerous European countries whose teams made the finals have sent dignitaries or royalty.
Belgium’s King Philippe took his two sons to Russia to watch his country play Tunisia, while Spain’s King Felipe VI jetted over to see his nation get knocked out by hosts Russia.
Meanwhile French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to travel if France make next week’s semi-finals.
Prince ‘a genuine football fan’
Britain’s boycott has meant Prince William, the president of the Football Association (FA) and a regular VIP spectator at England’s recent World Cups, has not gone to Russia.
But he has made clear he is still cheering on the side, making a rare appearance on social media on Tuesday after England beat Colombia — commandeering Kensington Palace’s official Twitter account to send a congratulatory message.
With the team’s advancement to the July 15 final a realistic possibility, the prince will be “completely gutted” to be missing out, according to royal expert Penny Junor.
“William is a genuine football fan,” she told AFP.
“He knows a lot of the team personally. And if they were to reach the finals … He will not be a happy man right now!”
Commentators have pointed out that England and Russia could even meet for a politically fraught semi-final if both teams go through.
The Russian Embassy in London meanwhile said the decision to skip the tournament was made unilaterally by London — and the latest war of words would not stand in the way of a last-minute World Cup detente.
“If UK dignitaries decide to come, they’ll encounter the same hospitality as the England players and supporters,” it said in a statement.