UEFA show their true colours

Lack of support for LGBTQ community demonstrates governing body's values

Euro 2020 may go down in history as the most long-anticipated European football event there ever was. A mere 364 days after it was due to begin, the biggest international competition on the continent kicked off and, in the first two weeks of the tournament, we have seen some things that will live long in the memories of football fans the world over. 

For the first time ever at a major tournament, play was stopped mid-game as North Macedonia’s soon-to-be-retired leader, Goran Pandev, was clapped off by his fellow professionals as he left the international stage for the final time. Earlier, of course, we all watched on in shock as Denmark’s Christian Eriksen dropped to the floor having suffered cardiac arrest. Chilling as the images of his fall were, the footage of teammates covering his body from onlookers and consoling his family was – entirely inappropriate for broadcast, but – equally uplifting. 

Something else may linger in the memory of fans for all the wrong reasons, long after this tournament comes to an end: UEFA’s most recent display of ignorance. 

Hungary and LGBTQ rights

Tonight, Germany will play Hungary in the Allianz Arena in Munich, as both teams battle for a place in the knockout stages of the competition. In what was due to be a show of solidarity with the LGBTQ community during Pride Month, officials planned to illuminate the stadium with rainbow colours before tonight’s game. A harmless display of tolerance and equality that couldn’t possibly irk anyone, right? Enter UEFA.

European football’s governing body have slammed the proposal, which came from Munich’s mayor, Dieter Rieter, and banned any such display from taking place. UEFA claim that this particular act has a “political context” and cited their desire to keep politics out of football as the reason for banning the display.

By “political context”, what UEFA really mean to say is “we don’t want to piss off the homophobic, intolerant, anti-democratic Prime Minister of Hungary, Victor Orban”.

Hungary finds itself at the centre of anti-LGBTQ discussion, both at the stadia and away from them, with good reason. Recently, the Hungarian parliament has passed a set of laws that will impact LGBTQ awareness and acceptance in the country for years to come. The new laws ban gay people from appearing in educational materials in schools or on television for under-18s. Private companies will also be forbidden from publishing adverts aimed at children that portray gay people. 

Deplorable as the new set of laws is, it will not come as a surprise to anyone who is tuned in to the goings-on in Hungary over the last number of years. Orban’s democratic backsliding, Euroskepticism and downright assault on the rights of LGBTQ civilians have been unrelenting and, again unsurprisingly, his latest move has caused outrage.

And we are seeing the effects of these policies at the Euros. During Hungary’s game with Portugal, which was played on the same day the draconian laws were passed, TV cameras panned to a group who were displaying anti-LGBTQ banners. Throughout the tournament, there have been protests in Hungary in opposition to players taking the knee – a show of desire to kick racism out of football, inspired by George Floyd’s death – at the beginning of games.

Days after the anti-LGBTQ banners were displayed at the match in Budapest –and after complaints from the anti-discrimination network Fare, who have workers in all stadia throughout the tournament to report incidents of discrimination – UEFA announced they would investigate the banners. But wait, before you go patting UEFA on the back for a job well done, save yourself some time. Soon after this, another UEFA investigation was announced, this time into Germany’s captain Manuel Neuer’s decision to wear a rainbow-coloured captain’s armband during the competition.

This is the moment where UEFA showed their true colours. Not only did they hum and haw over investigating what were clear anti-LGBTQ messages in the Puskas Arena, but someone in UEFA actively sought to punish a player for wearing a rainbow armband as a show of solidarity with the LGBTQ community during Pride Month. The investigation never got going, mainly thanks to massive social media backlash, but the intent remains.

UEFA have shown not only that their justification of “political context” is absolute nonsense (more on that, below), but they have failed to acknowledge what is, in fact, the true crux of this issue: human rights have nothing to do with politics. Discrimination is not politics. Sexual orientation is not politics. Pride Month is not politics. We are talking about standing united in the face of hatred and if that annoys the anti-democratic, discriminatory leaders of the world, all the better! 

UEFA, hypocrisy and elitism

By rejecting the plan to illuminate the Allianz Arena tonight, UEFA believe they are upholding their desire to “keep politics out of football”. Let's just take a quick glance at some episodes from UEFA’s glorious history and see if this is a goal they’ve helped achieve. 

Starting with this very tournament, Euro 2020, we can begin to see UEFA’s flawed approach to what may be considered “political” issues. Earlier in the tournament, Marko Aurnautovic of Austria was accused of using racist language during an angry tirade directed at opposition player Gjanni Alioski. If he had used racist language, he should have been sent home. If not, he should not have been punished. Instead, he was given a one-match ban, constituting nothing more than a cop-out on the part of UEFA.

UEFA also has a history of keeping particular nations apart in draws for qualifying, so that they cannot face each other. Azerbaijan and Armenia were kept apart due to the regular conflict between the nations. Spain and Gibraltar were kept apart, based on the fact that Spain still claims sovereignty over the tiny, British-ruled territory at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula. 

Their club-level competitions have often been farcical, too. When UEFA rebranded the European Champions Cup as the UEFA Champions League for the 1992/93 season, the first winners were French champions and the previous year’s runners-up, Marseille. It was found, however,  that one week before the 1993 Champions League Final, Marseille bribed opposing players in the French league to “go easy” so as to avoid injuring or tiring any Marseille players before the Champions League Final. Marseille were subsequently stripped of their domestic title that season, but UEFA never took back their Champions League crown. 

Earlier this year, UEFA were staring down the barrel, as 12 of the continent’s top teams threatened to form a breakaway Super League. As I’m sure we are all aware, the plan has come to an almost complete halt, with 9 of the 12 teams pulling out of the proposed league within 72 hours of its announcement. 

This was an opportunity for UEFA to rethink their strategy for continental competition and, perhaps, restructure the Champions League and Europa League to better represent the entire continent’s footballing exploits. Instead, the Champions League has been expanded to include more teams, but these teams will come from major leagues and/or, scandalously, include teams who haven't qualified but will be eligible due to historical context. In other words, the big guns have two or three routes to Champions League football, whereas some domestic champions from smaller countries can only dream of competing.

Human rights are not politics

Getting back to tonight’s event, I think it is abundantly clear that UEFA stating that the lights display should not proceed due to the “political context” is a complete cop-out. Even if this was a question of political context – which it absolutely is not – history shows that UEFA have no problem allowing politics to sway their decision-making.

Respect is a term that’s thrown around a lot in footballing circles these days. Racism “will not be tolerated” according to the likes of UEFA and their global counterpart, FIFA. The truth is, racism is still tolerated in football in many countries. There have been long-overdue campaigns pushing for racial equality and respect in the footballing world, and this is truly a step in the right direction. Why, then, can this support not be extended to LGBTQ people?

How can they want to support people with a different skin tone, but not people with a different sexual orientation or gender identity?

UEFA is a hypocritical, corrupt body that governs the five most profitable club competitions of the world’s most popular sport. Do not expect much from them. They will continue to act like cowards, as long as it keeps money in their pockets and solidifies the already rosy relationships they have with the likes of Victor Orban.

Talks in Germany suggest that, in an act of necessary defiance, the Allianz Arena will indeed be illuminated with the rainbow colours tonight. I certainly hope it is.

Racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of discrimination must be wholeheartedly rejected and met head-on. 

UEFA will not take a stand, but I hope you will.