Well, it’s been quite the week for UEFA, that forward-thinking champion of integrity, inclusiveness, and solidarity for football supporters of all kinds, but most especially for VIPs and authoritarian nationalists.
Only a couple of months ago, integrity and solidarity had very much been the watchwords, as everyone’s favourite Slovenian sports lawyer Aleksander Čeferin used his position as UEFA President to decry the European Super League. It was “disgraceful” and “fuelled by greed”, a “spit in the face for all football lovers and our society”. The “dirty dozen” breakaway clubs were “snakes” no less. Čeferin, let us not forget, was appointed as the successor to the disgraced Michel Platini, elected on a platform of openness and good governance to wash away the stench of corruption from the marble-lined, gilded corridors of UEFA headquarters in Nyon.
Those much trumpeted principles have been in rather short supply this week as UEFA’s hypocrisy has been laid bare in a fashion spectacular even for an organisation whose moral compass has always tended to go missing until its own interests are threatened. To recap. First, we heard that pressure was being applied to the British government to award special exemptions to travel restrictions and quarantine rules for as many as 2,500 VIPs so that they could attend the final at Wembley without any tiresome inconvenience to their globetrotting glad-handing. Then, UEFA stepped in to prevent the plans of the Munich mayor to light up the Allianz Arena as a protest against the latest authoritarian legislation passed by Viktor Orbán’s right-wing regime in Hungary, this time limiting freedom of expression for the LGBT+ community.
Stock running out of this belting T-shirt….modelled by TF's very own Norman Riley…..
— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) June 21, 2021
UEFA’s own statement on Wednesday, ”UEFA respects the rainbow”, was a masterpiece of self-contradiction, all 120 words of it. Maybe even their media department knew there was no point wasting time and effort trying to defend their ludicrous position. Apparently, some people had outlandishly “interpreted UEFA’s decision as political”, but, no, it couldn’t be because “on the contrary” – contrary to what wasn’t clear –“the request itself was political”. Ah, I see… So, the request was political, but the response to it was not?
Of course, the request was political, and its rejection could only be a political act, just as its acceptance would have been. Political in the most important way, not as part of self-serving and increasingly discredited party politics, but as an intervention in people’s day-to-day lived experience. The personal as political, at the risk of giving UEFA a history lesson. As if to confirm that UEFA inhabits a separate universe, free of logic, they concluded that “the rainbow is not a political symbol, but a sign of our firm commitment to a more diverse and inclusive society”. Sounds a lot like a political symbol to me. Much like their commitment to combating racism, UEFA’s statement is revealed as utterly hollow, the worst kind of corporate PR that crumbles as soon as it encounters reality.
Of all the forms of corruption deeply ingrained in sports governance, the myth of the inherent apoliticism of sport is the most abiding and dangerous, an alibi for a whole machinery that is constructed to advance very particular political concerns that, inevitably, remain hidden. Much like the spurious self-justification used to defend racist responses to taking the knee, politics is only invoked in the inverted world of UEFA, FIFA, and the Olympics to silence political causes that threaten the status quo. Happily, being sponsored by Gazprom and the Emirates or cosying up to authoritarian populist nationalism does nothing to endanger those cherished non-political principles.
🤝 Join the largest supporters trust in the country from just £2! ✅#NUFC 🖤🤍
— NUFC Supporters Trust (NUST) (@nufctrust) June 8, 2021
Which, of course, brings us to the common thread between the two stories this week, namely the threat to Wembley’s status as host venue for the final. “There is always a contingency”, warned UEFA sources ominously, that contingency being the latest of Orbán’s vanity football projects, the brand new Puskás Aréna in Budapest, which has been operating at full capacity for Euro 2020 despite – or is that because of – Hungary’s unenviable position as the second deadliest Covid country in the world. With more than 3,000 deaths per 100,000, Hungary has outperformed even our Tory government’s corrupt and incompetent shitshower of a response to the crisis. Still, nothing like a populist strongman to lead a country through a global health catastrophe. Truly a group of death. But I digress.
The multi-city format for Euro 2020 was very much Platini’s brainchild – brain in the loosest sense of the word – supposedly to celebrate 60 years of the European Championships. Why restrict yourself to being wined and dined and otherwise enticed by only one successful host country when you can reap the rewards from more than a dozen? Enter Viktor Orbán and the opportunity to legitimise through sports diplomacy the nationalist myth-making that has kept him in power. Well, that, and the systematic dismantling of constitutional democracy. Not in a political way, though, you understand, much as the choreographed junior black shirt demonstrations in the stands at Budapest have no political function at all.
The shame is that the football itself has been a joyous reminder of the particular pleasures of a summer international tournament, and in many respects the hosting arrangements have contributed to the spectacle. Trust UEFA to do their utmost to dissipate that sense of goodwill and the positive mood generated by Čeferin’s ESL statement. That started with their crass response to Christian Eriksen’s collapse and has continued into this week and their positioning in an odious love triangle with Orbán and Johnson. While the real health risk from loosening Covid restrictions for visiting dignitaries is surely minimal, as a symbolic statement it resonates much more powerfully. A spit in the face, we might say, for those without the wealth and power to re-write the rules to suit themselves.
Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731