UEFA’s rendezvous with hypocrisy and homophobia

As early as April, when the richest clubs in the world decided to “save football” through the European Super League, UEFA and its President Aleksander Čeferin quickly condemned the revolutionary split. Čeferin, who posed as the vanguard of the resistance, had observed that “competitive structures (like the Super League) give in with one hand and take away with five. Solidarity and not self-interest must have priority.” By lining up for the Super League, UEFA had suddenly become the sure keeper of the beautiful game and defiantly challenged the stinginess of the superclubs. At least, UEFA thought.

Not a question of pride

To strengthen its self-confident image as the guardian of football, UEFA made headlines again during the current European championships. His first headline-grabbing move was a deliberate decision to move the matter into motion following overt demonstrations of homophobia by Hungarian fans at Budapest’s Ferenc Puskás Stadium, before belatedly opening an investigation without any show of solidarity with the LGBTQI + community.

Then came the confusing decision to “look” at German captain Manuel Neuer’s rainbow armband (which he wore during recent games) to see if Neuer’s gesture (during Pride month) was offended (UEFA didn’t bother made to mention to whom). UEFA’s weird actions sparked outrage on social media. Thomas Hitzlsperger, the gay former German international, tweeted: “Come on, UEFA … you can’t be serious, can you?” UEFA subsequently bury the problem.

Also read: Why is Hungary’s new LGBT law causing so much buzz?

Another amazing move followed, in which UEFA refused to allow Munich’s Allianz Arena to be illuminated with rainbow colors during the game between Germany and Hungary. UEFA, whose official tweets celebrated Pride in previous years, declined the lighting request on the grounds that it is “a politically and religiously neutral organization” (perhaps banning national anthems before kick-off is next on the agenda). UEFA also cited that a stadium decked out in the colors of the rainbow would “send a message aimed at a decision by the Hungarian national parliament”. This decision relates to a law passed by the Hungarian Parliament prohibiting the depiction of homosexuals in school supplies or television programs for minors.

Hobnobbing with strongmen

In March 2020, the UEFA Executive Committee broadcast the 2022 final of the Europa League, UEFA’s second most important club competition, to Budapest (the 2021 edition was held in Gdansk, Poland). In addition, it handed over the 2023 Super Cup to Russia and named Minsk, the Belarusian capital, as the venue for the 2021 UEFA Congress (later scrapped due to Covid-19).

Since the Slovenian Čeferin took over the office of UEFA President in 2016, there has been a slow but sure swing towards the nations in Eastern Europe. In theory, such an orientation offers opportunities to strengthen the second tier of European football. In practice, however, this meant UEFA made friends with strong men like the Hungarian Viktor Orbán, the Polish Andrzej Duda, the Belarusian Alexander Lukashenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Also read: UEFA cancels away goals rule for club competitions

None of these associations with overtly anti-democratic regimes have submitted any reservations to UEFA that could have addressed the repression of mass protests in Belarus and Russia or the discrimination against the LGBTQI + community in Hungary and Poland. Instead, as always at UEFA, the priorities remain purely commercial.

Morally bankrupt

Why should a football regulation organization care about marginalized communities, democratic disagreements, or other building blocks of civil society? Isn’t it good enough just doing what’s best for football or business (the same thing these days)?

The short answer to that is no. But like any other sport, football is not played in a social vacuum, and organizations like UEFA, which enjoy enormous influence and visibility, cannot give up all civic responsibility.

Finally, how can UEFA claim to be acting in the best interests of the audience if it does not create an inclusive environment for everyone in football stadiums? How can UEFA protect players’ rights when their rights as citizens are at risk at all? How can UEFA act as a body with moral scruples and keep tweeting sweet things if it doesn’t have the courage to go down the road when it matters?

The problem is of course not just with UEFA. Sports associations have repeatedly been exposed as morally bankrupt, even though their coffers are getting heavier by the day. But as social media activism gains momentum and players and fans become more open day by day, it remains to be seen how long organizations like UEFA can maintain their rendezvous with hypocrisy.

Sooner or later it seems inevitable that governing bodies will face fundamental governance principles.

(The author is a freelance journalist and writes about politics, culture and sports)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect DH’s views.

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