If England wins the World Cup, it'll be a diplomatic nightmare for the players who have to shake hands with Putin

Harry Kane and the boys are resolutely ignoring all that novichok business. Fine, but what happens when they have to get all chummy with this aggressive near-dictator? Can they snub him?

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 10 July 2018 16:46
England World Cup squad stats

If – when? – England make it to the final, then will the squad shake hands with Vladimir Putin? A man responsible, or at least being held responsible by the British authorities, for the murder of a British citizen?

Admittedly, Putin, or his cronies/agents/proxies/people-working-to-his-presumed-wishes wouldn’t have targeted the people concerned, but that’s not really much of a defence, just saying “Whoopski!”

It is no idle question. Here we are, on the threshold of England’s first final in half a century, and with a full blown diplomatic crisis going on. The home secretary Sajid Javid has just condemned the Russians for using Salisbury as a dumping ground for their chemical weapons, the defence secretary Gavin Williamson has told the Russians to “go away”. Boris Johnson has compared Russia’s hosting of the tournament to Hitler’s Olympics. (We might also remember that the England football team, captained by Stanley Matthews, gave a Nazi salute before a 1938 “friendly” – it was the age of appeasement – against Germany in Berlin).

Yet, over there in Russia, Harry Kane and the boys are resolutely ignoring all that. Fine, but what happens when they have to get all chummy with this aggressive near-dictator? Should they snub him? Can they snub him?

When the Skripals were attacked there were calls for England to boycott the contest, or try to have it relocated, admittedly with about as much hope as of the team progressing beyond the usual quarter-final stage. But now?

Certainly in the event that England won it would be a global propaganda coup – for Putin. It would be he who, as Russian head of state and government, would be one of the main figures handing out the winners’ medals and the trophy. The ex-KGB boy would be up there dishing out the gongs, just as President Dilma Rousseff did when Rio hosted last time round, or President Zuma of South Africa did in 2010. For that matter, too, just as the Queen did in 1966. You’d hope that Putin wouldn’t take the opportunity to smear some novichok on the Fifa World Cup trophy. He might well, though, insist that the World Cup is not “won” officially until the ceremony is properly completed, which means the money shot with ol’ Vlad.

So it will be a strange event, this meeting between the representatives of two nations, one of which is allegedly committing acts of war against the other, as well as suspected of interfering in the Brexit referendum.

There will, we can be sure, be no senior British figure up there on the stage with Putin – no Prince William, no Theresa May, no – God help us – Boris Johnson. Not even Tracey Crouch. The nearest the Russians could get to a UK dignitary would be Nigel Farage, technically a UK MEP for southeast England. He’d be on the first plane out to Moscow, but I think some of us would consider that a bit of an own goal. Surely we wouldn’t want to inflict him on this golden generation.

We should, though, give them a heroic welcome on their return, with a succession of open bus odysseys around England, plus immediate knighthoods for each member of the squad (no need to make some of them wait decades as we did after 1966). Plus an English bank holiday (which will cover the national hangover).

They may well have beaten the French, after all. We could put Kane and Southgate in the House of Lords; “Baron Kane of Spurs” sounds nice, as does “Baron Southgate of Strategy”. It’ll be joy unconstrained for a land feeling a bit of a malaise. Providing the trophy remains novichok-free. I wouldn’t kiss it, if I were them.

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