Boris Johnson has compared the upcoming World Cup in Moscow to the 1936 Olympic Games under Hitler amid escalating tensions over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK.
The Foreign Secretary said it would be sickening to watch Russian President Vladimir Putin present the World Cup in the summer, in response to concerns that the event would be used as a “PR exercise to gloss over the brutal, corrupt regime”.
The Foreign Office has stopped short of advising fans not to go to the tournament but Mr Johnson signalled that he was considering whether to warn fans against attending. Theresa May has already said no royals or ministers will go to the World Cup.
Responding to Mr Johnson’s remarks, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry said: “It is clear he is poisoned with hatred and anger, unprofessionalism and, therefore, boorishness.
“It is scary to remember that this person represents political leadership of a nuclear power.”
Labour MP Ian Austin, a die-hard football fan, said the UK should consider boycotting the tournament completely, warning that it was not safe for England fans to attend.
“Putin is going to use it the way Hitler used the 1936 Olympics,” he told Mr Johnson during an appearance before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The idea of Putin using this as a PR exercise to gloss over the brutal, corrupt regime for which he’s responsible, fills me with horror.”
Mr Johnson replied: “I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right and frankly, I think it is an emetic prospect to think of Putin glorying in this sporting event.”
It would be unfair to ban the England team and fans from attending the tournament but there were safety risks for those going to Russia this summer, he said.
Mr Johnson added: “This is of crucial importance to us and we do indeed need to have an urgent conversation with the Russians about how they propose to fulfil their obligations under their FIFA contract to look after all fans arriving and we certainly shall be having that conversation.”
He revealed that the UK official responsible for looking after fans at the World Cup had been expelled in the Kremlin’s purge of UK diplomats, in response to Ms May’s expulsion of spies after the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury earlier this month.
Mr Johnson added: “We are watching it very, very closely. 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.”
Around 24,000 applications have been made by England fans to attend, compared to some 94,000 at the same stage in 2014 for the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, he said.
The Foreign Secretary said the trail of evidence on the poisoning of the Skripals led “inexorably” to the Kremlin and suggested that the recent election may have been the motivation for the attack.
He told MPs: “As many non-democratic figures do when facing an election or some critical political moment, it is often attractive to conjure up in the public imagination the notion of an enemy.
“That is what I think it was – an attempt to excite amongst the Russian electorate.”
It comes as a Russian foreign ministry official suggested during a meeting of foreign ambassadors in Moscow that Britain may have poisoned the Skripals.
Vladimir Yermakov, head of the ministry’s non-proliferation and arms control department, said: “Logic suggests that there are only two possible things.
“Either the British authorities are not able to provide protection from such a, let’s say, terrorist attack on their soil, or they, whether directly or indirectly – I am not accusing anyone – have orchestrated an attack on a Russian citizen.”
The Foreign Office accused Moscow of a “campaign of disinformation” over the Salisbury incident, which was carried out using a Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent.