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On May 14, 1938 England's football team raised their right arms in a Hitler salute before playing Germany in Berlin's Olympic stadium.

“The only humorous thing about the whole affair,” their captain, Eddie Hapgood, recalled later, “was that while we gave the salute only one way, the German team gave it to the four corners of the ground.”

A similar match will be played in Harare on November 26, when England's cricket team face Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Mugabe is patron of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union.

For once, the comparison with Nazi Germany is not odious. In fact, Mugabe insists on it himself. “This Hitler has only one objective,” he said last year, “justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold.” England's planned tour of his country damns not just English cricket, but all cricketing nations.

When I visited Zimbabwe five years ago, it had already begun its descent. Yet it was still one of the richer African countries, and charming in a rather colonial way. On Harare's wide avenues, lined with flowerbeds, cars drove carefully on the left. Children wore school uniforms, and office workers quasi-regimental striped ties. Black Harareans, many of them with Christian names like Paddington or Wellington, spoke an Edwardian English complete with “super”, “cheerio” and “you're pulling my leg!” The pace of life was not high.

Since then Zimbabwe has declined faster than any other country. Mugabe's thugs destroyed agriculture by invading white-owned farms. Because Mugabe has ignored Aids, the average Zimbabwean now dies at 34. The economy has shrunk by a third since 2000. Zimbabwe is in the third year of a famine, yet Mugabe refuses international food aid, while diverting what food there is to regions that support him (nothing for the Matabele).

Opponents of sports boycotts ask where you draw the line: why play against this bad state, but not that one? Well, you draw the line at Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

It is not as if Zimbabwean sport occurs in a happy vacuum. Last month the football commentator Charles “CNN” Mabika was sacked by Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings for lack of patriotism. He had uttered “relentless praise” of Nigeria's players during their 3-0 thrashing of Zimbabwe. The Herald, the government newspaper, called “his biased comments unmistakably tailored to give the visitors an upper hand”.

In cricket, a protester died of injuries which his family claimed were inflicted by police. His crime: handing out leaflets at a Zimbabwe-Pakistan match describing human rights abuses. All protesters detained at last year's cricket World Cup matches in Zimbabwe reported torture or severe mistreatment, often meted out at the Bulawayo cricket ground. “You will not hear their screams,” a letter from Zimbabwean anti-Mugabe activists reassures England's cricketers.

A Zimbabwean cricket fan told me from Harare that few fans will watch the two England matches. People have other worries. Many deserted the team after 15 white players went on strike claiming the selectors were racist. A Zimbabwean cricket activist in Britain says: “The government will fill the stands with schoolchildren. They also use militia. They put them into suitable attire, and put them in the stands to intimidate people.” The opposition Movement for Democratic Change has asked England to boycott the tour.

The England and Wales Cricket Board says that if it did, the International Cricket Council might suspend it. A year's ban would cost English cricket £50m. “We are a business like anyone else,” says the ECB. In fact, sports organisations call themselves businesses only when it suits them. When they want to fill grounds or get money out of government, they suddenly claim to represent the nation. Vodafone, the ECB's main sponsor, told me: “We don't have a position on the tour.” Reports that the company opposed it on moral grounds are therefore false.

More culpable than the English, though, are the other cricketing nations. Through the ICC, they have pressured England to tour. The ECB notes that only in Britain is there strong public feeling against playing Zimbabwe. “The intensity of the debate is not the same in other countries, unfortunately not for the bulk of Australians, Sri Lankans, South Africans.” That shames the other cricketing countries.

The tour will go on. England's players could use it to make a statement against Mugabe, protected as they are by their fame and passports. “Say they were to walk out with black armbands on, that would be wonderful,” muses an official from the Zimbabwe Defence and Aid Fund UK. It won't happen.

Afterwards everyone will return home feeling sick. We have been here before.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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