This is the opinion of Mark H, a take on the culture of UEFA. Links embedded in the text and documented at the end of the piece.
To sit down and consider it, it’s a bit odd really, particularly given the modern context. We pit team against team based on geographic borders, to determine which group of 11-16 can most capably adapt and progress over the course of four short weeks. Decades ago, we would use this competition to truly test the varying approaches and technical components of the beautiful game; techniques, fitness, coaching methods, tactics, even elements like diet or boot design were up for competition. These days, I suppose it’s less clear, given the industrialisation and then capitalisation of football, opponents on the grass and in the dugouts tend to have more in common with each other than they do with the supporters or even the governments they represent.
I would guess that the early 1990’s was probably the last time that this type of international tournament saw a specific type of football that was synonymous with a nation. Even then, though the instantly recognisable Catenaccio, Italian style, had a similar structure to the German doppel-sechs, the quintessentially British four-four-two beds it’s roots in a humbling home defeat to a tactically progressive Hungary. Even the more recent Spanish tiki-taka can boast a Dutch lineage all the way back to total football. Like any hyper-competitive industry football, particularly on the pitch, can be broken down into an intense R&D race, but one where, with the world watching, you can’t keep trade secrets for long.
What is left for each country competing, is the platform to show the watching masses glimpses of their culture. How we support as fans, how we treat our fierce rivals, how we handle defeat, how we handle victory, even how we react in extreme circumstances. Culture is like that, we can talk about it proactively, as decoratively as we like, but you only get to really see it in those trying moments.
As a British-Finn, I’ve been particularly lucky in this tournament. On the pitch Finland applied themselves with energy and organization. Off it, the Eriksen incident showed us the unprompted compassion and respect our fans carry with them. Lucky also to see an England team, led by a manager not keen on sacrificing his principles, filter out the noise and evolve players noted for their attacking flair into a well-bonded team that appear to be the toughest to beat in the tournament.
In addition, to the competition, we also get glimpses of an often unseen organisation. In this tournament, we have seen the priorities, decision making and working styles of those that administrate the beautiful game. It is no easy task, and involves the coordination of many, most of whom are affiliates or subcontractors. Still, the organisation of UEFA has had its moments during this tournament, and most often we could see the sport diverge from the organisation.
Cristiano Ronaldo first, the Paul Pogba and Manuel Locatelli later, shunned sponsors coca-cola and Heineken at press conferences. The former even dared to promote “agua” to the younger generation, the response from UEFA a reprimand and reminder to players, who pays the bills. The incidents were not repeated, players got the message.
In Baku and St.Petersburg UEFA staff confiscated flags and materials supporting pride month, citing local laws and policies, but when local organisations in Munich wanted to display support for Pride, infringing on no local laws or policies, UEFA stepped up to ban the action. In addition, the introduction of alcohol to Euro 2020 games across the competition was a good example of where and how UEFA has the capacity to shape local regulations during the tournament is the sale of alcohol both in stadia and fan-zones. In such a small space of time UEFA has demonstrated an ability to pick, choose and shape the laws it wishes it’s players and fans to conform with.
The financial clout of sponsors not withstanding, UEFA has also pitted member associations against one another to get it’s way. As a number of senior figures were concerned with missing the final, UEFA threatened to move it from London to Budapest, to ensure its executives could make it, throwing concerns of Covid and once again local regulations it didn’t like to one side to get it’s way.
The spectre of Covid has loomed over the tournament, though prepared to delay games by 48 hours in case of positive tests, such measures are yet to be deployed in spite of reported case spikes for travelling Scotland and Finland fans. The case in London was made particularly galling as UEFA’s strong arm threat was designed to reduce restrictions rather than protect fans.
The threat to move the final highlights a feature that is present but not obvious in the other examples. That there are two distinct levels of administration in UEFA. There is the collection of member association administrators, that coordinate and prepare local events and professionals. Then there is a smaller central group of head office administrators that coordinate the coordinators. These are the memo-typers that remind players of obligations they themselves never made to sponsors, the special-guest placaters, who flout local laws and norms to deliver favours to a select few, the money counters, of every euro of interest made on ticket purchases that were held over the 12 month delay of the tournament, the ticket cancellers for those not lucky enough to know the UEFA hospitality team personally. They leverage elite players, astute coaches, passionate fans and an unwavering demand from countless professionals, regardless of their role, for the most popular sport on the planet.
Culture is most visible in those rare moments when we are fully tested. As players, coaches, physios then medical staff responded to offer treatment to Christian Eriksen, we saw professionalism, dedication and a lifetime of good judgement unfold in a matter of minutes to life-saving effect. In the minutes that followed, the same dedication and preparation took effect for those framing the choices and rules in such extreme circumstances. Fans showed what supporting this game and each other truly meant, players and coaches sat in silence. The Finnish coach, Markku Kanerva, and multiple players who’ve spoken since were very clear in their position. Whatever the danish players decided, they would honour, regardless of the outcome they would stand with their fellow professionals. What choice was offered to the Danes? Conclude the game now or come back at 11am in the morning and replay it entirely.
Who framed this choice? Who ignored a Covid protocol that would have given everyone at least 48 hours? Who failed to involve medical professionals that could have correctly acknowledged the psychological implications of those terrifying events? Who maintained a broadcast feed to a world watching on in horror? UEFA list all professional and local administrative staff involved in any match under its stewardship. The assistant video assistant 3 for that particular match was Marco Di Bello of Italy, if you’d like to find out for yourself, you can. But it is impossible to find out who decided that, for Denmark, it’s tonight, tomorrow or never.
You can also find UEFA’s official statement, on twitter:
“Following the request made by players of both teams, UEFA has agreed to restart the match between Denmark and Finland tonight at 20:30 CET”.
A statement that was as disingenuous as it was authorless. Communication that followed focused on two talking points, that UEFA wished Eriksen a speedy recovery and that the decision was the players. This is simply lying through omission, both facts are true, but the body which stated them framed the event, with the world watching on.
Why do we do it, pit team against team? Is it not exactly this? Simply to see how we fare, how we succeed, how we fail, how we adapt under pressure? What can we see, now that we look back at UEFA through this lens, the lens it holds. Without doubt they are incredibly adept at using leverage, either to get what they want or what their sponsors want to avoid. It’s fair to say they have very few public figures, particularly those setting corporate policy, and they are comfortable bending the truth as they see fit. Most of all, it’s clear they don’t care about players, they don’t care about fans, the don’t care about laws, they don’t even care about member associations or other administrators. They can look into the eyes of players like Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjaer and leverage their dedication and professionalism to get what they want. They can watch the beating heart of football stop and wave play on. To them, as their slogan suggests, it is truly an Equal Game because to them nobody and nothing matters.
Players and their governments – https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/nov/08/marcus-rashford-forces-boris-johnson-into-second-u-turn-on-child-food-poverty
Scotland fans supporting: https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/watch-scotland-fans-filling-trafalgar-2166362
France in-fighting: https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/kylian-mbappe-euro-2020-penalty-24426023
England win: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/england-germany-crying-girl-wembley-b1875515.html
Arnautovic reacts: https://www.skysports.com/football/news/11095/12332512/marko-arnautovic-austria-forward-apologises-for-celebration-against-north-macedonia-but-denies-using-racist-language
Eriksen support: https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/christian-eriksen-denmark-finland-fans-24306758
Sponsors offended: https://www.skysports.com/football/news/19692/12334973/cristiano-ronaldo-paul-pogba-and-manuel-locatelli-bottle-moves-prompt-uefa-to-urge-players-to-stop-removing-sponsor-drinks-at-news-conferences
UEFA pride Baku St.Petersburg: https://www.standard.co.uk/sport/football/rainbow-flag-euro-2021-denmark-czech-republic-baku-azerbaijan-b943969.html
UEFA pride Munich: https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/uefa-turn-down-request-rainbow-lights-munich-2021-06-22/
UEFA alcohol: https://sportforbusiness.com/uefa-ease-alcohol-restrictions/
England FA pressure: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-9699017/UEFA-warns-Euros-final-AWAY-Wembley-HUNGARY.html
Scotland Covid: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-57667163
Finland Covid: https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/thl_chief_more_than_half_of_finlands_cases_linked_to_st_petersburg_returnees/11999546
Uefa statement: https://twitter.com/EURO2020/status/1403777379089141760?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1403777379089141760%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fd-378156144310623167.ampproject.net%2F2106182132000%2Fframe.html
Equal Game: https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/social-responsibility/respect/
FFS view: https://www.instagram.com/p/CQGBPvNrJc_/?utm_medium=copy_link