After a former Russian spy Sergie Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in England in early March this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May blamed Kremlin, froze ties and expelled 23 Russian diplomats which made its western allies to follow suit.
May also announced that no British minister or diplomat would attend the World Cup in Russia.
Over 60 members of the European Parliament too have signed a letter calling on its leaders to back May by boycotting the big sporting event which is just days away.
World leaders are at their wit’s end. If they attend, it would be viewed as supporting President Russian President Vladimir Putin in his efforts to make the first World Cup in his country a grand success. Those who criticise Putin’s policies on Syria and Ukraine think he is trying to win over western leaders by inviting them to the mega event. Putin’s recent remarks to mend fences with the EU and US are seen as part of this strategy.
If world leaders skip the World Cup, Russia and its allies will call it mixing politics with sport. In February this year, another important sporting event, the Winter Olympics, held in South Korea brought the two Koreas together. If sport can unite these arch rivals and Russia says the ball in the Western court, leaders may find it hard to boycott World Cup.
German media says Chancellor Angela Merkel is undecided yet but she may attend the event if her country enters the semis. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will not go but says it is not a boycott. Others will attend.
French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists he would attend the tournament if France reaches the semis.
Belgium’s Le Soir newspaper said King Philippe is likely to attend a match while Prime Minister Charles Michel has told his Cabinet that they are free to go.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is still undecided on attending the World Cup.
Sweden, Denmark and Poland plan to boycott the event but no official statement has come yet from any of them.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, Argentina’s President Mauro Macri and Brazil’s President Michel Temer are attending the World Cup.
Although the US failed to qualify for the competition, some 30,000 American football lovers are expected to arrive in Russia.
To draw maximum fans from abroad, Russia has given World Cup ticket holders ‘Fan IDs’ that will serve as visas.
Tailpiece: British investigators believe highly concentrated Soviet-era nerve agent ‘Novichok’ was sprayed on the door handle of ex-spy Sergie Skripal’s home to poison him. Now a nightclub Gryadushka Bar in Volgograd, where England will play their opening match against Tunisia on June 18, plans to offer its customers a cocktail called ‘Novichok’ which, they claim, has ingredients including extracts from birch trees. Football fans especially from Britain should try that. Won’t they?