Emma Somos

Health and Social Affairs Analyst

Football – more than just a game?

As the long-awaited final match of UEFA European Football Championship (Euros) takes place, thousands of eager fans will be crowded into pubs and bars across the World. The game’s sheer ability to draw-in people, including those who may not usually be football fans, into this multi-billion pound industry leaves economic and political powers at awe.

No wonder the game which was once a simple recreation has now evolved into one of the world’s largest institutions; with the symbolic (or “soft”) power to communicate and promote both cultural and political messages, all while generating huge revenue. So as we all sit and watch the final between England and Italy, somewhere in the back of our minds we must wonder…is football more than just a game?

European football attracts global attention, and despite a nominal political neutrality being strongly promoted by The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), one cannot ignore the political connections of individual teams. Clubs such as Paris Sain-Germain (owned by Qatar) and Manchester City (owned by the United Arab Emirates) present strong connections between national government interests and the game of football.¹ Countries that get to host important football games and tournaments also gain a global exposure which not only brings economic advantages such as increased tourism and investment opportunities, but also an increased exposure of their political leadership and values.

First introduced by Harvard Political Scientist Joseph Nye, the concept of “soft power” described the way countries can achieve their goals not by direct action, but by “getting other countries to want what it wants.² On one hand, sports can help popularise countries, and their respective governments can capitalise on such attraction by fostering political cooperation and asserting themselves as global leaders. Researchers view China and Qatar’s increasing engagement with global sports to be based on such a desire to acquire ‘soft power’.³ On the other hand, athletes (and increasingly fans) have also begun to realise how sports, especially football, can function as a platform to communicate and as a means to achieve social action. Society and sports are deeply embedded systems and the long history of athlete activism demonstrates this.⁴ Although most would agree that athlete activism is entirely different to governments and corporations asserting their interests and power through sports, some remain unconvinced. While athletes usually speak up for social diversity and inclusion, or against human rights abuses, governments and corporations tend to have more power and profit-related intentions.

The expected political neutrality of football games are fixed in Articles 1 and 2(a) of the UEFA Statutes, stating “neutral, politically and religiously” is essential to “promote football in Europe in a spirit of peace, understanding and fair play, without any discrimination on account of politics, gender, religion, race or any other reason”.⁵ Although the UEFA, and International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), have historically been stringent in their policing of political or social statements made by teams and players, there seems to have been more ease in restrictions over the past year.

The national soccer teams of Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands all wore T-shirts that supported human rights during the 2022 World Cup qualifiers voicing a criticism of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar, the host of next year’s World Cup.^5 Furthermore, the murder of George Floyd and recent police brutality towards the African-American community in the United States inspired many football players to take the knee before matches to show support for racial justice and solidarity with people of colour. In a step away from its usually neutral position, UEFA announced its support for players taking the knee because it “has a zero-tolerance against racism and any player who wants to demand equality amongst human beings by taking the knee will be allowed to do so”.⁶ An act as simple as dropping to one knee has had the power to bring discussions of racial inequality and discrimination onto the global agenda. It has proved a powerful tool in the ongoing fight for racial justice, but also provides an example of how the soft power of football has the ability to impact positively on society, and not just increase power and revenue for some stakeholders.

In addition to racism, LGBTQIA+ discrimination has also became a central topic during the Euros 2020. Discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ Community in Hungary increased as a new law passed in the FIDESZ majority national parliament practically banned any LGBTQIA+ representation or support from education.⁷ Members of the LGBTQIA+ community in Hungary already had no legal right to marry, adopt kids, or have legal recognition of gender reassignment. This latest bill is particularly outrageous as it falsely conflates LGBTQIA+ with paedophilia. Despite this, the UEFA showed support for Viktor Orban, national conservative and openly anti-LGTIQ prime minister of Hungary, only one year before national elections in Hungary take place. Orban has been known for his obsession with football, or more precisely, with building unnecessary and enormous stadiums in Hungary (of which the construction contracts have been awarded to his close friends and allies).⁸ Although Orban’s right wing voter coalition building has proved to be effective⁹, as his party has been re-elected twice in the past 10 years, there is increasing opposition among Hungarians against his openly homophobic and discriminative policies.¹0

The UEFA’s open support for such a political leader has raised questions from players, fans, and activists in solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community.

Prior to the Euro 2020 match between Germany and Hungary, Munich City Council requested to illuminate the Allianz Arena in rainbow colours to show support for social inclusivity and diversity¹¹. UEFA rejected their request saying they are a politically neutral organisation and that the request would contradict this stance due to the “political context” given the illumination would be “a message pointing to a decision made by the Hungarian national parliament”.¹² Interestingly, Sándor Csányi, a Hungarian banker and close friend of Viktor Orbán, serves as the vice-chair of UEFA’s executive committee and FIFA, as well as being the President of the Hungarian Football Association. One is forced to consider whether such an alliance would bear influence on UEFA’s decision. In another example, UEFA’s Control and Disciplinary body also considered whether Manuel Neuer’s (goalkeeper and captain of the Germany national team) rainbow armband should be punished for displaying a “political message”, but the investigation was later dropped.¹³ Adam Crafton from The Athletic rightly reported that the UEFA is passive on homophobia, but proactive when players show solidarity.¹⁴ Aleksander Čeferin, President of UEFA is known to have a good relationship and has been pictured with authoritative Eastern European leaders such as Alexander Lukashenko (President of Belarus), Vladimir Putin (President of Russia) and Viktor Orban (Prime Minister of Hungary).

As a young Hungarian myself, I recognise the advantages and joy of attending such high-level games in my capital, however the UEFA providing spotlight and prestige for undemocratic leaders without any challenge or scrutiny is a shame. There is an urgent need to engage and grow the game outside of Western Europe, and be more aware of the game’s subtle association with certain leaders, countries, and organisations.

This being said, we are now witnessing a change across the entire footballing industry. Some clubs and players are becoming increasingly aware of their soft power and have begun to show support for particular social justice matters. The lighting of stadiums with rainbow colours by several German clubs during recent matches shows solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community. Posting images and messages on social media has also allowed clubs to demonstrate their support for a more inclusive and diverse society. Following the controversy prior to the Germany/Hungary match, German player Manuel Neuer addressed his position as an athlete activist: “In the past, it was often the case that we did not position ourselves politically that way and instead followed the guidelines as it always has been, but we want to give the national team a face and show people that there are important things outside of football that we point out and that we stand behind. We are role models for many children and young people, and I think that we are currently giving a positive image”.¹⁵

Sports is not something that exists in a bubble and that can be fully autonomous. Football can serve as a platform of discussion and be the leader of change. And while the space of football has long been dominated by powerful stakeholders such as football federations, governments and corporations, athletes and consumers are beginning to realise their voice in the game. The coming years will be a turning point for the industry and I, for one, am looking forward to the witnessing the growth of the game.

[1] East, S. (2015). Middle East millions fueling European football [Online]. CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/12/football/qatar-uae-sponsor-football-europe/index.html (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[2] Nye, J. S. (1990). Soft Power. Foreign Policy, (80), 153. doi:10.2307/1148580 https://www.jstor.org/stable/1148580

[3] ‘Qatar’s big push to establish itself as a footballing soft power’. (2019, September 09) [Online]. Goal. Available at: https://www.goal.com/en-sg/news/qatar-football-soft-power-major-investment-world-cup-fifa/1ftx705j09k0f16omvssx82f90 (Accessed: 09 July 2021) and Leite J. E. and Rodrigues C. (2020) Belt, Road and Ball: Football as a Chinese Soft Power and Public Diplomacy Tool. In: Leandro F., Duarte P. (eds) The Belt and Road Initiative. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-2564-3_4

[4] Reeves, R.. (2021). A new era of athlete activists inherit a centuries-old fight for justice [Online]. The Undefeated. Available at: https://theundefeated.com/features/a-new-era-of-athlete-activists-inherit-a-centuries-old-fight-for-justice/ (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[5] ‘Qatar World Cup: Germany, Norway and Netherlands players voice human rights concerns’. (2021, March 30) [Online]. SkySports. Available at: https://www.skysports.com/football/news/11095/12258996/qatar-world-cup-germany-norway-and-netherlands-players-voice-human-rights-concerns (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[6] ‘Europe divided on taking the knee during EURO 2020 football tournament’ (2021, June 11) [Online]. Euronews. Available at: https://www.euronews.com/2021/06/11/europe-divided-on-taking-the-knee-during-euro-2020-football-tournament (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[7] Papp, R. (2021). Discrimination against LGBTIQ Community in Hungary. [Online]. 4Liberty.eu. Available at: http://4liberty.eu/discriminating-against-the-lgbtiq-community-in-hungary-and-its-implications/ (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[8] Lambert, S. (2018). Orbán Government Stadium Construction. [Online]. The Orange Files. Available at: https://theorangefiles.hu/government-stadium-construction/ (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[9] Goldblatt, D. and Nolan, D. (2018). Viktor Orbán’s reckless football obsession. [Online]. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/11/viktor-orban-hungary-prime-minister-reckless-football-obsession (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[10] Simon, Z. (2021). Same-Sex Parenthood Draws Unexpected Support in Hungary. [Online]. Bloomberg. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-21/same-sex-parenthood-draws-unexpected-support-in-hungary (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[11] Gulácsi, P. (2021, February 23.). Instagram post. [Online]. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CLon2VUlbKL/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[12] Vaski, T. (2021) FM Szijjártó Praises UEFA for Declining Munich’s Rainbow Stadium ‘Provocation’. [Online]. Available at: https://hungarytoday.hu/munich-rainbow-stadium-uefa-rainbow-flag/ and Miller, G. (2021). Uefa blocks the protest at the LGBTQ + rainbow stadium in Munich | Euro 2020. [Online]. Available at: https://insider-voice.com/uefa-blocks-the-protest-at-the-lgbtq-rainbow-stadium-in-munich-euro-2020/ (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[13] ‘Manuel Neuer: UEFA drops review of rainbow armband worn by Germany captain at Euro 2020 during Pride Month’ (2021, June 21) [Online]. SkySports. Available at: https://www.skysports.com/football/news/19692/12337162/manuel-neuer-uefa-drops-review-of-rainbow-armband-worn-by-germany-captain-at-euro-2020-during-pride-month (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[14] Crafton, A. D. . (2021, June 22.). Tweet. [Online]. Available at: https://twitter.com/AdamCrafton_/status/1407230000055607297?s=20 (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

[15] Salt, N. (2021). Germany are in talks about taking the knee ahead of Euro 2020 Wembley showdown against England tomorrow despite not kneeling at all in 2021… with goalkeeper Manuel Neuer impressed by solidarity of Three Lions in tackling racism. [Online]. Mail Online. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-9732631/Euro-2020-Germany-talks-taking-knee-ahead-Wembley-showdown-against-England.html (Accessed: 09 July 2021)

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