London (AFP) – British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Wednesday he wanted Russian guarantees over the safety of England fans at this year’s football World Cup amid a diplomatic row over a spy attack.
Relations between London and Moscow are in crisis over the March 4 nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain, which the UK is blaming on the Kremlin.
Johnson, however, stressed the British government had no plans to stop the England side travelling to Russia for the World Cup, telling MPs: “On balance, it would be incredibly unfair to punish the (England) team”.
Britain has expelled 23 Russian diplomats and Moscow has responded in kind — but Johnson said they had kicked out the UK official set to be tasked with the fan safety portfolio.
“You can’t imagine anything more counter-productive to the UK’s ability to help fans in Russia, so there is an issue — there is a discussion,” Johnson added.
“My challenge to the Russian authorities is to show that the 24,000 UK applicants for tickets to the football World Cup are going to be well-treated, are going to be safe.
“It is up to the Russians to guarantee the safety of England fans going to Russia. It’s their duty under their FIFA (football’s global governing body) contract to look after our fans.”
Johnson said Britain was doing all it could to ensure the safety of England fans and had been coordinating with the Russian police in recent months.
He said England fans would be given the “best possible advice” in the run-up to the tournament.
“At the moment, we are not inclined actively to dissuade people from going because we want to hear from the Russians what steps they are going to take to look after our fans,” he said.
– Ticket applications plunge –
Johnson said the number of fans seeking tickets was around a quarter of the number who wanted to go to the last World Cup in Brazil — around 24,000 compared to 94,000 at the same stage in 2014.
“So the numbers are well down. But that doesn’t mean we are not deeply concerned about how they may be treated,” he said.
England are due to play Tunisia in Volgograd on June 18, Panama in Nizhny Novgorod on June 24 and Belgium in Kaliningrad on June 28 in their Group G matches.
At the 2016 European football championships in France, England fans were attacked by Russian hooligans in Marseille, ahead of a match between the two teams and in the stadium itself.
Scenes of the street battles shocked the world and marred the tournament.
The clashes left 35 people injured, including two England fans who suffered serious injuries.
The Russian team was given a suspended disqualification and the country’s national football federation was fined.
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