To stress-test any theory properly you have to take it to extremes. We can now be confident England’s agonised relationship with the World Cup is a tractor beam into which everything gets sucked eventually. And I mean everything. The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury is the latest event to be subsumed in the much bigger story of England’s mystifying decades of tournament underperformance.
Over here the sports pages have earnestly contemplated what the fallout from the deployment of nerve agent on British soil means for Gareth Southgate’s squad as Russia 2018 looms into view, with much made of an intervention last month by one security expert. The Russians could insert contamination into the England side’s doping samples, Edward Lucas told the Jeremy Vine show, and they could nobble the referees and linesmen. They could also drug England players to “slow them down”. (Leave it – it’s too easy.)
Over there the Kremlin’s troll hameau joined in the fun this weekend, with a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, declaring that all roads lead back to the decision to deny England hosting rights for the 2018 tournament. “It’s my impression that all they care about is taking the World Cup out of Russia,” Zakharova explained. “They will use any means. Their minds are only on that football, and God forbid it should touch a Russian football field.”
If we are to understand this “any means” thesis, England are so bitter about losing out in the World Cup bidding that the state – or possibly just the FA chief executive, Martin Glenn – sanctioned a false-flag extrajudicial murder attempt in a bid to sabotage the bid that beat them to it. I mean … it comes to something when you realise you’ve seen less desperate excuses for England over the years.
Naturally Ms Zakharova is far from the first politician to find herself irresistibly drawn to viewing the event via the prism of the Three Lions. Boris Johnson initially hinted that England might have to withdraw from the tournament, later clarifying his remarks to suggest he had simply meant the usual show of so-called dignitaries and officials might boycott.
He later hopped back into the shit by agreeing that Vladimir Putin meant to use the World Cup much as Hitler had used the 1936 Olympics. This is the sort of argument that could be floated only by a foreign secretary who has no clue that Putin is far from engaged with the World Cup, as he was – intensely – with the Sochi Olympics, a circumstance not unrelated to the fact that Russia’s football team are currently ranked 63 in the world by Fifa.
Then, of course, there was the culture secretary, Matt Hancock. “Actually the best response frankly to all of this would be for England to go to the World Cup in Russia and win it,” he said last month, apparently under the impression that Southgate has at least 11 Jesse Owenses on his hands. “If we won it,” Hancock continued, “we would be demonstrating that we have got the best football team in the world and it should be about that.” Thank you, secretary of state.
None of this shows any signs of abating as the tournament grows closer and the Skripal investigation and related diplomatic manoeuvring continue to dominate the headlines. Indeed, it will only get worse. At some level you have to howl with laughter at the new layers of psychological pressure that are being added to players due to pull on the England shirt in Russia this summer. Over a series of recent tournaments England have shown themselves incapable of withstanding pressures such as being able to handle boredom, being exposed to the wrong sort of ball and being expected to beat Iceland. They will now journey to Russia with the added task of avenging an attempted assassination in which a nerve agent was deployed. It is difficult not to sympathise.
Primarily you have to remark at the chronic arse-about-tittery of it all, with the Skripal poisoning joining a long list of momentous events that for some become only properly resonant insofar as they relate to footballers. You know the sorts of things. The morning after any Olympics has finished, for instance, there is a strong sense that the entire Games have actually happened only in order that the triumphant athletes who took part in them can be used as a stick with which to beat “pampered, preening” footballers. Much more darkly, I often get the impression that the horrors of the first and second world wars are relevant only as a test of England footballers. Did they visit the memorials or death camps when they played nearby or did they “shamefully snub” them? Did they visit but somehow not wear the right clothes when they did so?
And so with the Skripal affair, which will ultimately come to be seen as one of the acutely destabilising factors that prevented England from reaching their true potential in the tournament. Despite all that has happened, despite all the tournament exits you can never unsee, despite their decades-long status as the biggest little football team in the world, you really have to marvel at certain people’s ability to make something – anything – feel like a very long and complex setup to a joke of which England will be the butt.