MOSCOW (Reuters) - England’s political leaders are welcome to change their minds and come to Russia to support their team at the World Cup now that it has advanced to the knockout stage, the Russian organisers said on Friday.
Though beaten by Belgium on Thursday, England will play Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday and have seen odds on their trophy hopes cut after solid performances and a less daunting draw.
But amid ferocious rows over the poisoning in March of a former Russian spy in England, which briefly raised talk of the team boycotting the tournament, the British government said it would not send official representatives to the World Cup.
Asked whether they would be able to change their minds now that England are doing better than expected after a last-minute defeat of Tunisia and 6-1 thumping of Panama, the chairman of Russia’s organising committee said they would be welcome to join in what has turned out to be a joyfully festive competition.
“As we perfectly well showed to the world, we welcome any fans from any country,” Alexei Sorokin told reporters. “The atmosphere is truly hospitable and truly cordial at every stadium. They will be welcomed as any fans, any football lovers.
“We repeatedly told the world how puzzled we are at the decision of certain politicians ... not to visit the World Cup and support their teams,” he said. “But they’re always welcome.”
Critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin have accused him of using the four-yearly global spectacle to defy Western sanctions over the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. A number of national leaders and ministers have, however, visited the tournament and some have met Putin or members of his government.
Should teams advance to the last stages it would be customary for senior national leaders to attend — though bookmakers still doubt England will make it to the final.
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; @macdonaldrtr; Editing by Hugh Lawson