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Russian World Cup boycott not decision for politicians, says ex sports minister

By Brett Campbell

A Northern Ireland-born former UK sports minister has said it is up to the Football Association and not politicians to decide if England should boycott the World Cup in Russia.

Labour MP Kate Hoey also said that snubbing the event in response to a nerve agent attack on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia would be "unjust" to the fans and have no real impact.

"No one in an official position has called for the England team to boycott the tournament and I certainly won't be calling for that," she told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Sport tends to get roped into rows as an easy fix but I don't think the Russian Football Federation or Fifa would care very much if England went or not.

"It would be a knee-jerk response and in no way would it influence the policies coming out of the Kremlin, it would only serve to penalise fans who have probably spent quite a bit of money making plans after following their team through the qualifying rounds."

Ms Hoey, who served in the Blair government, said the Labour Party is united in supporting the Prime Minster's decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats and suspend bilateral relations with Moscow following the attempted murder in Salisbury which has provoked international condemnation.

Theresa May has also promised to toughen sanctions and lead a boycott of dignitaries - including Royal Family members - at this summer's World Cup.

Ms Hoey, a founder of the Northern Ireland Supporters Club in London, said she doubts anyone would have called for Northern Ireland to boycott the tournament had they qualified for the final play-offs.

"Northern Ireland fans could have easily found themselves caught up in this had it not been for that awful penalty decision and subsequent draw in Basel," she said.

"I doubt if anyone would have seriously called for us not to go and imagine how unfair that would have been if they did - it would be totally unjust."

Ms Hoey, a former high jumper, recalled the boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow which was in protest of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 when Margaret Thatcher occupied 10 Downing Street.

"It was left up to each sport's governing body to decide, and although there were those who didn't go, many did," she said.

"I was there to watch Seb Coe and Steve Ovett win their medals because even the Thatcher government knew it shouldn't forbid people from participating.

"I'm not convinced that staying away would have changed history."

But the Member of Parliament for Vauxhall said it was right for the England cricket team to boycott South Africa in the 1970s.

"It was during the worst time of apartheid and is the only time where I think this sort of thing was appropriate," she said.

"It was slightly different in that it was only one particular country which England decided not to compete with and it was the cricketers themselves who didn't want to play.

"Generally however, I think the sporting world gets on pretty well without political interference."

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