Russia has sent out a fresh invitation to Theresa May to lift her ministerial boycott of the World Cup after England beat Colombia to reach the quarter-finals.
So far, Downing Street has said the prime minister’s resolve is not cracking, and the boycott by British ministers and members of the royal family – imposed after the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury in March – stands.
Speculation as to what May might do if England reached the final was classified as premature. Extending her cagey Brexit negotiating tactics to a wider field, a Downing Street source said she was taking each game as it comes.
Sweden, whom England are due to meet in Samara on Saturday, have proved less resolute. The British government had believed Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Löfven, had given a commitment that no Swedish ministers would attend any of their team’s games for the duration of the tournament.
But the excitement at Sweden’s progress out of the group stages, and now a hot ticket to the Sweden-England quarter-final on Saturday, appear to have proved too much for Löfven. Some things – beating England to win a place in a World Cup semi-final, for example – are more important than politics, it emerged.
May’s interest in football is passing, unsurprisingly since her local team Maidenhead United plays in the lowly Vanarama National League. The last time she attended a professional game – at Wembley with the French president, Emmanuel Macron – it was largely an act of political solidarity in the wake of terrorist attacks in France in 2015. Her presence is chiefly remembered for her inability to sing along with the Oasis hit Don’t Look Back in Anger.
The Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström, insisted her country had been consistent and its solidarity boycott only ever extended to the opening ceremony or group stages.
She told the Swedish tabloid Expressen: “We’re in another situation now. Football should be something that unites. Denmark will also send people, and the UK won’t object to us travelling there. Exactly what they will do understandably depends on what happens in the football. I don’t think they’ve decided. We will continue to cheer for our team.” Announcing the change of heart, she said the whole of the government wanted to be in Russia.
Earlier, the sports minister, Annika Strandhäll, recently featured in a Swedish football shirt, had said she did not plan to attend any games in in Russia.
She said: “I am deeply concerned about the political situation in Russia, especially in terms of democracy and human rights. The government has said not to participate in the opening ceremony and I do not plan to attend a game in Russia.”
The British ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow, attended the game against Colombia on Tuesday night, as well as the group stage game against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod, technically not a breach of policy as the boycott applied only to government ministers and royals.
Since the start of the tournament the British embassy in Moscow has struck a careful tone, trying to engage respectfully with the World Cup while maintaining the official position. Before England’s first game against Tunisia in Volgograd, the deputy ambassador, Lindsay Skoll, joined fans at a wreath-laying ceremony at a war memorial in the city, and spoke positively about Russia’s World Cup effort. “The warmth of the welcome here has been absolutely outstanding. All the fans have commented on that and Volgograd seems delighted to welcome everybody,” he said.
Before the Colombia game, Bristow and Skoll hosted two members of an LGBT fan group at their residence for breakfast. Posting a photograph on Twitter, the official embassy account wrote that “football is for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation”.
Ambassador Laurie Bristow & Deputy Ambassador Lindsay Skoll welcome England fans Di Cunningham @di_ceee & @JoeyWh1te from @3LionsPride to Moscow ahead of this evening’s big match. Football is for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. pic.twitter.com/rrIWH66lIo
— UKinRussia🇬🇧🇷🇺 (@ukinrussia) July 3, 2018
Overall, Russiahas been delighted with the World Cup, the friendliness of the crowds and the patriotism unleashed by the success of the Russian team, which has also reached the quarter-finals.
As England scored the winning penalty on Tuesday night, the commentator on Russian state television yelled: “England will remember the World Cup in Russia for the rest of their lives! Down with propaganda! Down with the British press who told their fans not to come!”
The chirpy Russian embassy in London Twitter feed has been sending out congratulations to the English team, inviting English fans to travel to the country, and speculating on the prospect of a Russia v England semi-final.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, will attend the final 15 July before holding a bilateral meeting with Donald Trump in Helsinki the next day.
Advance warnings by the British Foreign Office over the threat of violence to British fans appear to have reduced the number of English fans travelling to Russia, although low expectations about the team’s performance also played a role.
British diplomats flew to Moscow in advance of the World Cup to advise their opposite numbers that they had a duty of care to English fans, especially gay men and lesbians who might be targets for attacks.
The closure of a British consulate in St Petersburg as part of the tit-for-tat expulsions in the wake of the Salisbury controversy has been deferred by Russia in recognition of the need for English fans to have access to consular advice. Russian and English police forces have also been co-operating in advance of the game.
The Russian embassy has put the UK political class’s churlish attitude to the World Cup down to sour grapes and a traditional anti-Russian approach. British politicians “cannot forgive our country for Britain’s failure to obtain the right to host the 2018 World Cup”, a press officer said. “The English, by the way, lost not only to Russia, but two other candidates as well.”