parties that kids and their mums and dads can enjoy together, most likely from afar. Like Sochi 2014 and Russia 2018.
There’s nothing new here. Despots are keen on soft power, as well as hard power. They always have been. And the World Cup, like the Olympics, has always been there, to help them out.
The Olympics, famously, was there for Hitler in 1936. The World Cup had been there for Mussolini, two years earlier, when the Italians won at home, and again in 1938, when the Italians won again, in France. Italian football as we know it today was basically invented by the fascists, as a propaganda tool.
The World Cup was there for the murderous military junta in Argentina in 1978 — the focus of Will Hersey’s excellent piece, on page 86. That was a shameful episode in the history of the world’s favourite sport, but for some reason the world’s favourite sport does not seem ashamed. Which is how the World Cup comes to be in Russia, this time. It’s there for Vladimir Putin, just when it suits him most. And it will be there again, in 2022, for the rulers of Qatar, to help them distract us from their delightful record on human rights.
The England team didn’t go to Italy in 1934. Not for moral reasons. We were in dispute with the body that then organised it. We didn’t go to Argentina in 1978, either. Again not for moral or political reasons. We didn’t have the opportunity to register a protest then. We hadn’t qualified. We were too crap. (Four years later, Britain registered a different kind of protest at the junta, by going to war with them over the Falklands.)
It won’t happen, it will never happen, but this time we do have an opportunity not to repeat the mistakes of the past. We could not go. We could boycott. This would not be the English FA “politicising sport”. In the sense that it has been used as a weapon of soft power, sport has been politicised since the Greeks. Fifa has politicised the World Cup, consistently, by allowing repressive regimes to stage it. Instead we would be reacting to its politicisation. It’s been said that such a boycott is a pathetic response to Putin’s criminality, and that he won’t care a jot if we don’t turn up. It’ll be our loss, the loss of football lovers everywhere, not his. But cultural and sporting boycotts are deeply shaming to the regimes whose policies they explicitly protest.
However, since it’s true that a World Cup without England might not be, if we’re honest, considered such a great loss to the competition, we could lobby others to join us. Italy and Holland are out already. But imagine a World Cup without them, and England, plus Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and Argentina.
As I say, it’s not going to happen. Instead, our formal protest is to announce that Prince William, as president of the FA, won’t go to Russia. Worse still, for Putin, no British government ministers will attend. Honestly, how will the world’s football fans manage without them? Talk about taking the shine off the whole tournament. One can only imagine the howling gales of laughter that swept through the corridors of the Kremlin as Theresa May outlined this uncompromising approach to international diplomacy.
Of course, our Oscar and many millions like him would be gutted if the World Cup didn’t happen. But I’m hopeful that when, years later, he came to understand the reasons why he was denied the thrill of watching us being taken apart by de Bruyne and Eden Hazard and the rest of them — the fact that kids his own age in the Middle East are being killed with their families — he might feel a tiny bit proud of that.
England won that match in Berlin in 1938, by the way. It was 6–3. You don’t need a five year old to tell you that that is the precise definition of a hollow victory.
The England football team give the Nazi salute before kick-off against Germany in Berlin, 14 May 1938