“Political context,” Uefa has called it. The governing body was first reviewing the use of a rainbow armband by Germany captain Manuel Neuer during Pride Month. Now it has cited “political context” as a reason to put a block on Munich’s Allianz Arena being lit up in rainbow colours on Wednesday when die Nationalmannschaft host Hungary in Group F of Euro 2020.
Let’s be clear here. It is only the archaic laws brought in in Hungary which gives the promotion of equality a ‘political context’. Equality ought to be a right. The freedom to be oneself ought to be a right. Uefa itself has supported movements promoting equal rights in the face of racism, sexism, homophobia and more in the past, and is clearly progressive enough to know better than this.
But in a period during which the European governing body has been flirting with the idea of moving the semi-finals and final of Euro 2020 from Wembley to Budapest’s Puskas Arena so that they can be assured that their countless commercial partners won’t be excluded due to Covid-19 protocols, Uefa has now taken the frankly ridiculous step of blocking Germany’s show of solidarity with LGBTQ+ communities.
Sure, it is no coincidence that the DFB (German FA) has come up with the idea of lighting up the Allianz Arena for the visit of Hungary shortly after new laws have been introduced in Hungary which bar the ‘display and promotion of homosexuality’ among under-18s. Yes, it is a pointed response to a political decision. But it is not the support of minorities which is a political act, rather it is the attempt to supress equality that brings what should be a natural, everyday expression into the political sphere.
Do you know what happens when football attempts to separate politics from sports? It gets political.
When it says no to lighting up a stadium in rainbow colours, it is justifying the political decision made by Viktor Orban’s Hungarian government. That is sport mixing with politics.
When it threatens to relocate matches for the sake of commercial concerns, it applies pressure on a government to relax its restrictions related to Covid-19.
Should the UK prime minister Boris Johnson be giving the OK for 60,000 people to congregate at Wembley for the Euro semi-finals and final at a time when Joe and Dave Bloggs or Josie and Jane Public can’t dance with their friends at their wedding? No, of course not. But they have backed down and made the games part of the Events Research Programme which allow for test events simply because Uefa had threatened to move the matches elsewhere. Again, sport has got mixed up in politics.
And these are not the only examples. Just a couple of weeks ago, Uefa weighed in on Ukraine’s decision to include a map of the country on their new jersey due to the inclusion of the disputed territory of Crimea within the Ukrainian border. The shirt had provoked anger in Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and Uefa held extensive talks with Ukrainian officials before eventually coming to a compromise which saw the map remain but a slogan proclaiming ‘Glory to the Heroes’ removed.
In supporting Russia’s stance and engaging in discussions with Ukraine, Uefa claimed to be addressing a political act within the sporting arena but ended up making a political statement of its own.
There are no easy answers, of course. If Uefa does nothing about overtly political acts, then there could be an absolute free-for-all as nationalistic agendas gain free reign within the football arena. But it also doesn’t need to get involved where it is not needed.
The decision to stop the DFB lighting up the Allianz Arena has probably gained greater publicity for the opposition to the new laws in Hungary than the actual sight of the stadium being lit would have managed, so in a way Uefa has ended up promoting the LGBTQ+ movement as an unintended consequence of its disproportionate intervention.
Yet this is just the latest example that football’s governing bodies need to think far longer and much harder before going in feet first on issues with a supposedly ‘political context’ which are simply trying to make sure that the sport is a better and more welcoming place for everybody.