Boris Johnson did not mean to threaten England would boycott the football World Cup in Russia, the Foreign Office has said.
The foreign secretary is facing demands to return to the Commons and explain himself after he appeared to suggest the team should withdraw if Moscow was found to be responsible for the hospitalisation of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter in Salisbury.
Johnson said as part of moves to “bring Russia to heel” it would “be very difficult to imagine that UK representation” at this summer’s World Cup could “go ahead in the normal way”.
The Foreign Office later clarified that Johnson meant just officials, dignitaries and politicians could stay at home.
And a source close to the foreign secretary said Johnson was not talking about “our boys” in the England team.
“He was trying to show the range of hard and soft power available to show our international displeasure,” the source said.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry mocked Johnson for the backtrack.
Gary Neville, the former England player and assistant manager, branded Johnson a “useless fool”.
Labour MP Toby Perkins said the consequences of England pulling out of the World Cup were “absolutely massive” for the travel industry, business and “tens of thousands of supporters”.
“We should ask the foreign secretary to come back and explain such an important claim very quickly,” he told Commons Speaker John Bercow.
Speaking to Sky News, Perkins added: “If our response is to say we will not eat prawn sandwiches before a game, that is a really pathetic response.”
The 2018 World Cup is being held from 14 June until 15 July across Russia. England is the only team from the UK to have qualified.
The suggestion England could withdraw from the tournament was welcomed by Labour MP Anna Turley.
“This is the right course of action, not least for this but also for their actions in Syria,” she tweeted, before the Foreign Office clarified the position.
The confusion came as Johnson updated MPs on the government’s response to the Skripal incident.
Johnson he was not yet “pointing figures”, but added “no attempt to take innocent life on UK soil will go unsanctioned or unpunished”.
Sergei Skripal, a former Russian agent convicted of treason in Moscow for passing state secrets to British intelligence, is critically ill in Salisbury District Hospital hospital along with his daughter Yulia.
The pair were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the centre of Salisbury yesterday afternoon.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement and said it has “no information” about what happened.
A spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry said Johnson’s comments were “wild”.
Johnson told the Commons the British government would take “whatever measures we deem necessary” to “protect the lives of people in our country, our values and our freedom”.
He added “it is clear that Russia is now a malign and destructive force” and said it was time to “bring Russia to heel”.
“If things turn out to be as many members suspect that they are,” Johnson said. “I think we will have to have a serious conversation about our engagement with Russia.
“And for my own part, I think it will be very difficult to see how, thinking ahead to the World Cup this July, this summer, I think it would be difficult to imagine that UK representation at that event could go ahead in the normal way. We will certainly have to consider that.”
Johnson added the hospitalisation of Sergei and Yulia Skripal has “echoes” of the death of Alecander Litvinenko in 2006.