It was only three months ago that Sergei and Yulia Skripal were cruelly poisoned by a military grade nerve agent called novichok — a crime made all the more appalling for taking place in the quiet town of Salisbury in Wiltshire.
As it became clear that there was only one plausible culprit — the Russian state — I found people asked me questions in tones of increasing outrage.
- Why did we not just boycott Putin’s football World Cup
- How could we possibly allow him to bathe in the glory of this superlative tournament
- Surely the England team — and their thousands of fans — should cancel their trip in protest
My friends: There was never the slightest chance that England would boycott the Russian World Cup, and for very good reason. It would have been unfair on the team — young athletes who have trained so hard for what is the summit of their careers. It would have been unfair on the fans — who simply want to enjoy the sport without the intrusion of politics.
And above all we in this country have no quarrel with Russia, or the Russian people. And for the Russian people this World Cup is of course a moment of terrific pride and excitement. Our dispute is solely with the current administration of the Kremlin, and that is why we and our global friends pulled off the biggest expulsion of Russian spies in the history of diplomacy.
A total of 28 countries and Nato expelled 153 Russian spies around the world — and I bet the Kremlin hadn’t bargained for that. And so now there is a different question. We have at least 10,000 England fans travelling to Russia, at a time of heightened tension between the two governments.
Worried constituents have been asking me: How can we guarantee the safety of the England fans? So I want once again to stress that there is nothing but friendship and admiration between the people of Britain and the people of Russia — nations that fought together against tyranny in the 20th century. And that friendship has allowed us to work together — irrespective of politics — on sensible precautions.
For months now our police have been travelling to Russia to meet their counterparts, and the Russian police have been in this country to share experience of crowd safety techniques. Wherever there is an England match played, there will be British police and UK consular staff.
The British Consulate in St Petersburg — which the Russians decided to close in the upheavals that followed the Salisbury poisonings — will be allowed to stay open until after the World Cup. I have sent extra Foreign Office consular staff to Russia — and the Russians have been very reasonable in granting them visas. Our teams will be on duty around the clock to respond to requests for help.
The Foreign Office has set up a special World Cup advice web site called “Be On the Ball”. I hope that everyone thinking of going to Russia will consult it. The Russians have promised a safe World Cup not just to Fifa but to 31 visiting countries and we will all hold them to that pledge. Let’s face it: Vladimir Putin simply cannot afford to see this World Cup, on which he has lavished so many billions, descend into ugly scenes involving fans from England or anywhere else.
His prestige is on the line.
And of course no matter how extravagant and exciting the ceremonies it will be impossible for any of us completely to ignore the realities of Russian behaviour in Europe and around the world. It is Putin’s Russia that has been responsible for downing MH17; for cyberwarfare; for fanning the flames of conflict in Ukraine and for poisoning British citizens in Wiltshire.
It was certainly Putin’s Russia that won the right to host the World Cup. But this World Cup does not belong to the Kremlin. It belongs to football fans everywhere in the world.