‘The most beautiful non-essential matter’
Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 13 July 2021
So, it’s not coming home. 55 years after England’s last international football tournament triumph, the Three Lions are still waiting to beat their trauma.
But England is not the only loser from this UEFA European Football Championship. The European football association and the Beautiful Game come out of this tournament with a sour taste.
That is not a verdict on the sport on the pitch. The football was as it always is: a mixture of stunning and forgettable matches. There were the usual surprises of small nations making a splash (Switzerland, Denmark) – and disappointing football superpowers (Germany, Portugal). At least there were more goals per match than at Euro 2016 (2.78 vs. 2.12, to be precise).
But off the pitch, the impression is Euro 2020 was one of the most heavily politicised football tournaments ever seen.
The idea to play a tournament criss-crossing from country to country (instead of playing it in just one place) was the brainchild of Michel Platini, the former UEFA boss. Back in 2012, he pushed through the pan-European tournament as a way of bringing football closer to the fans.
Maybe it was. More likely it was just another way of maximising revenue for a tournament now played with 24 teams (whereas in 1992 it was only 8, and even in 2016 still only 16).
Since he proposed it, Platini exited the football scene in disgrace. In 2015, he was banned from holding any football office when his dubious $2m backdated salary from FIFA was revealed.
Though Platini is out, his pan-European tournament format survived his presidency. More astonishingly, the format even applied during Covid-19. Though the championship was postponed by a year, it still happened with teams flying across the continent for their matches.
In the most extreme version, it led to the Polish team playing their first match in St Petersburg, the second one in 4,500 km away in Seville only to return to St Petersburg for their final match.
Luckily for the climate, UEFA offset the carbon flight emissions of all spectators, teams and officials – although with intra-EU air travel covered by the European ETS, it really was not necessary. That still leaves it an absurd travel circus but at least it was a more-than-carbon-neutral travel circus.
UEFA did not give the impression it cared much about players’ wellbeing. Or at least not of players like the poor Poles. And when Danish player Christian Eriksen collapsed with a cardiac arrest in the first group match against Finland, UEFA effectively forced his teammates to play on while Eriksen was fighting for his life in hospital.
Besides these football-related aspects of the tournament, there was plenty of political controversy alongside. Not least around sponsoring.
Among the 12 official sponsors, four were Chinese (Alipay, TikTok, Hisense and Vivo), one was a Russian majority state-owned energy company (Gazprom), and one an airline from a country with a questionable human rights record (Qatar Airways). Perhaps after all the scandals around the governance of international football, it was difficult to find more sponsors from liberal democracies?
While many sponsors hailed from autocracies, others wanted to demonstrate their commitment to progressive values. Not least Volkswagen and Booking.com – and especially after an incident ahead of Germany’s group match against Hungary.
The Hungarian government had just enacted legislation to outlaw the promotion of homosexuality to minors, which enraged the LGBTIQ+ community. This in turn inspired the city council of Munich, where the Hungary match was to be played. The council asked UEFA for permission to illuminate the stadium in rainbow colours – which UEFA promptly denied.
In response, UEFA’s progressive sponsors wanted to colour their advertising banners in rainbow colours. However, UEFA rejected these banners for the matches played in Russia and Azerbaijan to comply with local anti-LGBTIQ+ legislation and politics.
As if to make up for that stance, the match ball for the final was driven to the kick-off point with a remote-controlled car painted in rainbow colours. Oh, and UEFA also allowed national skippers like England’s Harry Kane and Germany’s Manuel Neuer to wear rainbow-coloured armbands.
The whole tournament was a political pendulum swinging in all directions: Authoritarian regimes hosting matches, imposing advertising restrictions and supplying advertisers. Meanwhile, players and other sponsors expressing more progressive views on diversity and bending their knees against racism. And in between all that, UEFA ensured that nothing interfered with its commercial optimisation of football.
The greatest open contradiction of this tournament, however, was UEFA’s handling of the pandemic.
On the one hand, UEFA issued Covid rules and guidelines about social distancing, coughing etiquette and masks. They also reduced the stadium capacity. Ticket holders had to produce either a vaccination certificate, a negative Covid test or proof they had recovered from Covid.
But these requirements did not matter for some matches played. The crowds at the Hungarian Puskás Aréna in Budapest or the finals in London’s Wembley Stadium were little different from pre-Covid matches.
The results showed promptly. As the Moscow Times reported, in late June St Petersburg reported the highest daily Covid-19 toll for any Russian city since the start of the pandemic. That was after St Petersburg had hosted six Euro 2020 matches with crowds up to 26,000 fans.
UEFA pressured the British government into allowing more fans to the final than previously planned. Originally, attendance should have been limited to just 21,000 spectators. In the end, the attendance figure was 65,000. UEFA also gained access for 2,500 VIP visitors for whom the usual quarantine rules did not apply.
Had London not complied with the European football association’s list of demands, UEFA could have shifted the final to Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would have been only too happy to host it.
Perhaps sports tournaments like Euro 2020 have always been political in some ways. But never have non-sports aspects pushed the game as much to the side.
As legendary football coach Sepp Herberger once said, “Football is the most beautiful non-essential matter in the world.” That was true when football was still about football. At UEFA’s Euro 2020, meanwhile, football was most definitely non-essential.
On the sidelines of profit maximisation, appeasing questionable regimes and political symbolism occurred 51 football matches. That is the summary of Euro 2020.