Politics are taking over Euro 2020

Germany’s Manuel Neuer has worn a rainbow armband in support of the LGBTQ community.
Germany’s Manuel Neuer has worn a rainbow armband in support of the LGBTQ community.
Image: Reuters/Matthias Schrader
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In the halls of Brussels, Hungary’s far-right government is increasingly at odds with the European Union. But on the soccer field, Hungary is hosting some of the most important matches of the European Championship. It’s the latest example of geopolitics colliding with the global sports industry in a way that some activists argue is becoming unsustainable.

Hungary faces a backlash over discrimination

In Budapest, one of the host cities of this year’s Euros, two flashpoints have emerged on and off the pitch.

Earlier this month Hungarian fans booed members of the Irish football team who took a knee to symbolically support racial equality. Prime minister Viktor Orban blamed the Irish players for “provoking” local fans. Some Hungarian fans also protested athletes taking a knee before a game against France this weekend. (Soccer’s European governing body, UEFA, is investigating “potential discriminatory” actions by fans.)

Last week, Hungary’s parliament passed a law proposed by Orban’s far-right party Fidesz that restricts broadcasters and educators in teaching children about homosexuality and gender reassignment. Yesterday (June 22), a group of European ministers called it “grotesque” and said it was a “test” of the bloc’s commitment to shared values.

These tensions have spread to sports. UEFA turned down a request from the mayor of Munich to light the stadium hosting today’s Germany-Hungary game in rainbow colors to protest Hungary’s anti-LGBTQ law—”the right decision,” according to Hungary’s top diplomat Peter Szijjarto, who said that “mixing politics and sport” is “harmful and dangerous.”

Sport, politics, and money

When the first European Football Championship was held in 1960, the dictator Franco banned Spanish players from playing the Soviets because Moscow supported republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. So, this tournament is no stranger to geopolitical tension—and neither are the Olympic Games, which survived boycotts by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In spite of that history, sports bodies promote the idea that their global events should be politically neutral. However, that position is becoming increasingly untenable as the gulf widens between the values these organizations espouse (and Western governments say they share), and the political realities in some host countries.

One of UEFA’s core commitments is to “attract and integrate marginalized communities through inclusivity…and anti-discrimination campaigns.” Activists argue this is incompatible with hosting the Euros in Hungary. Piara Powar, executive director of the anti-discrimination nonprofit group Fare, told Reuters that “respect for universal rights” should be a pre-requisite “for hosting matches at major tournaments.”

However, in 2013 FIFA boss Jerome Vackle said that “less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup,” and that it is easier “when you have a very strong head of state who can decide.”

There’s a lot at stake: Organizations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee make most of their money from TV deals, marketing rights, and tickets to major tournaments. In recent years, fewer democracies have bid to host these events because they are prohibitively expensive (pdf).

This debate is unlikely to be resolved soon. In 2022 the Winter Olympics will be held in China and the World Cup in Qatar—two countries with poor human rights records. “As much as [these] organizations…would like us to believe that sport is apolitical,” says Simon Darnell, an associate professor of sport for development and peace at the University of Toronto, “it just isn’t.”