UK Politics: Boris Johnson should leave sport out of politics

Boris Johnson playing cricket in India
Boris Johnson is playing a dangerous game
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Threatening that England will boycott the World Cup in Russia is just the latest move in Boris Johnson's political game and plays straight into Vladimir Putin's hands, says Max Liu.

"Putin is [1.01] to win a fourth term as president, which should last six years, with closest rival Pavel Grudinin [50.0]. Putin is [1.06] to win over 70% of the vote."

There are few sounds more nauseating than a man who knows nothing about football talking about football. You know the kind of thing - the scene when Alan Partridge tries to make small talk with his builders:

"See the match?"

"Which one?"

"Don't know."

Or, my personal favourite, David Cameron confusing his claret and blues, saying he'd like immigrants to support West Ham then remembering he was supposed to be a Villa fan.

To be fair to Boris Johnson, he isn't really the kind of politician to pretend to like football. But the Foreign Secretary was still over-reaching this week when he said that, if it turns out the Russian government was involved in the alleged poisoning of a former-spy and his daughter, then England will consider pulling out of this summer's World Cup in Russia.

World Cup threat is all in the game for Johnson

Again, to be fair to Johnson (although let's not make a habit of it), he probably isn't the main obstacle to the Three Lions ending 52 years of hurt this summer and triumphing in Russia. England are [20.0] to win the World Cup and the odds haven't shifted since the Foreign Secretary dragged football into international diplomacy earlier this week.

There is surely no chance that England will boycott the World Cup. Who doesn't love the World Cup? It's the tournament everyone watches, regardless of whether they usually like football, and England's participation makes a big difference to levels of engagement at home.

Everything from sales of beer to barbecues is affected by England's fortunes at the World Cup. It's worth millions to the economy and, according to reports, boycotting the World Cup in Russia could lead to England being banned from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Now, if the government want to talk about boycotting a tournament for ethical reasons then there's a conversation to be had about Qatar. But that's for another day.

In the meantime, is an already unpopular government really going to risk upsetting people by making England boycott the World Cup? Probably not but, while Johnson isn't a football fan, he does like to play games. Talking tough on Russia, he thinks, makes him look decisive, which will boost his career prospects. At the moment, Johnson is [9.8] to the next Conservative leader.

Johnson is one of several cabinet members urging Theresa May to impose sanctions and travel bans on Russia. The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which has also put a police officer in intensive care and left a further 18 people needing medical treatment, is shocking and extremely serious. But until anything has been proved, the PM is right to be circumspect about the political ramifications. So leave football out of it.

Turnout is Putin's only concern in Russian election

Like Johnson, Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to try to make political capital out of the Skripal case. Putin's supporters are already citing the British government's rhetoric as an example of western Russophobia and the need for a strong Russian government to stand up to it.

For Putin, the timing is handy. The Russian elections begin a week today, on March 18. Putin is [1.01] to win a fourth term as president, which should last six years, with closest rival Pavel Grudinin [50.0]. Putin is [1.06] to win over 70% of the vote.

There's no market available on turn-out, which is a shame, as Putin's biggest concern at this election is apathy. His main political opponent, Alexei Navalny, has been banned from standing for the presidency, but Navalny is calling for Russians to show their opposition to Putin by boycotting the election.

Over the next seven days, Putin will urge Russians to come out and participate in their democracy. It will be no surprise if he tries to rally his supporters around the careless words being uttered by their enemies in the west.

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