As the World Cup prepares for kick-off, the Virgin founder has written of his hope the tournament can be an “opportunity for the world to put differences aside and join hands as one.”

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on June 14, 2018

In a post on the Virgin website Branson has reiterated his support for a campaign which calls on host nation Russia to use the World Cup to promote peace by announcing a ceasefire of its military activity in Syria for the duration of the tournament.

“Given Russia’s role in the ongoing Syrian conflict, I think that’s a fantastic idea,” Branson wrote.

“More than 300,000 Syrians have been killed and 12 million have been forced to leave their homes since the last World Cup in Brazil in 2014, and an end of the conflict is not in sight.”

Branson’s post goes on to say that such a ceasefire would allow civilians caught up in the conflict to move to safer areas and access help from humanitarian organisations.

The ultimate outcome of such a ceasefire, Branson writes, would be for the parties in conflict to find a lasting solution.

The continuing civil war in Syria has evolved out of a peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2011. As of March this year more than 350,000 people had died in the war and another 50,000 were reported missing.

Russia has been a key supporter of the Syrian government against rebel forces, first by lending military aid and then through direct military involvement in support of Assad in 2015.

The ‘World Cup of Peace’ campaign has been led by a number of non-government organisations in the We Exist! Alliance including the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Women Now for Development and the Russian-based Civic Assistance Committee.

Maria Al Abdeh, Executive Director of Women Now for Development said: “For Russia, the World Cup is a ‘tournament of dreams’ but in Syria there is no cause to dream.

“For hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, the World Cup will pass by unnoticed so long as the fighting carries on and bombs continue to fall.”

Branson also points out that there is a historical precedent for such a truce albeit one in the distant past. “In the ancient Greek Olympics, this period of peace was known as the Olympic Truce: a period of up to three months when all warfare ceased, legal disputes were suspended and no executions were carried out.”

Singer Peter Gabriel has also called on people to support the campaign.

British Labour MP Stephen Kinnock has also previously sought to use the World Cup to highlight the policies of Vladimir Putin’s regime. He suggested the English team wear black armbands to mark the death of former spy Alexander Litvinenko (which an investigation found was “probably ordered by Putin”) and the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

“The World Cup is a massive propaganda coup for the Kremlin and it should never have gone there in the first place,” he told Press Association Sport.

“We are using the beautiful game to launder the reputation of a dangerous authoritarian regime and that poses some major questions. We should think creatively about what we might be able to do to send a message.

The first match of the World Cup sees Russia play Saudi Arabia on 14 June 6pm local time.