Sign outside Parken Stadium, Copenhagen (Photo: Leif Jørgensen, Wikimedia Commons).
Sign outside Parken Stadium, Copenhagen (Photo: Leif Jørgensen, Wikimedia Commons).

Competing for more than goals

How Football promoted respect but forbade rainbows

Kim Ligtenberg
Kim Ligtenberg Guest author

Does football bring people together? Or, does it stress and enhance divides? Just before the start of Euro 2020, David Goldblatt wrote in The Guardian about discrimination within football. He anticipated that EURO 2020 would “offer a snapshot of national attitudes to race across the continent”.

With this article in mind, I observed EURO 2020 in the last couple of weeks. UEFA promotes the #EqualGame in which everyone should be able to enjoy football. To what extent was this campaign realized during the UEFA EURO 2020? What do these events and incidents tell us?

Uniting and dividing

Saturday June 12th, 2021 was a dark day for UEFA EURO 2020. At the end of the first half of the group match Denmark-Finland, the Dane Christian Eriksen collapsed and had to be resuscitated. In the aftermath, Danish and Finnish football fans portrayed the great side of football. They embraced each other, singing chants to support Eriksen. Unified, transcending nationality, gender, or skin color. However, only one hour later a recurring problem in the world of football was portrayed at the game between Belgium and Russia. Belgium football players getting down on one knee to highlight racial inequality and discrimination were met with loud booing from the fans in the stadium. This shows how the actions against discrimation in the world of football can still be divisive.


Before the tournament started, Paul Pogba, player of the French national team posted a clip of the UEFA #EqualGame campaign on his Instagram asking people to stand up against racism and support the efforts. This campaign was maybe forgotten for a moment by Austrian football player Marko Arnautovic, when he celebrated his goal at the group stage by using racist language against Gjanni Alioski, a player for North Macedonia with an Albanian background. Arnautovic, who has a Serbian background, was afterwards suspended by the UEFA for the next match for insulting an opponent. This however was an isolated on-pitch incident. But, far from the stadiums, the Dutch far right political party Forum voor Democratie (FvD), while showing their support to the Dutch national team on Twitter, portrayed the Dutch team as an all white team by leaving out all the dark skinned players. The Dutch team is very diverse and interracial. One of the players is Denzel Dumfries, a Dutch footballer with Aruban roots. The wingback emerged as the star player of the team during the tournament. However, the FvD decided not to mention him or his winning goal against Ukraine on their Twitter account.

Respect for respect

The kneeling down of football players as an expression of solidarity with black communities and specifically to the initiative Black Lives Matter, was also heavily debated during EURO 2020. The tournament displayed the division within Europe toward this gesture. The kneeling was done by only part of the teams such as Belgium, England, Wales, and Germany, while others tried to contribute in different ways, such as armbands. The gesture was not accepted by all football fans and was answered with booing in some stadiums. Hungarian president Viktor Orban is quoted on Euronews, stating that “the fight against racism has no place on a sports field”. But what about the resistance to this fight? Hungarian fans held anti-kneeling banners before the match against France.

UEFA, at that moment officially supported the kneeling and stated: “UEFA 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,” a spokesperson told Euronews. “We urge spectators to show respect for teams and players taking the knee.”

But what are the lines between campaigning for respect and taking political stances? UEFA’s rules state that “Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images. Players must not reveal undergarments that show political, religious, personal slogans, statements or images, or advertising other than the manufacturer’s logo”.

Are rainbows neutral?

Stating that taking the knee must be respected, while also ruling against any political, religious or personal statements, seems like a recipe for contestation. And this happened in EURO2020. During the first week of the tournament, Viktor Orbán’s leading party in Hungary voted in parliament a law banning gay people from featuring in school educational materials or TV shows for under-18s. With Hungary participating in EURO 2020, the discrimination of LBGTQ+ people became a hot topic. Instead of wearing a regular armband, as prescribed by UEFA, German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer wore a rainbow armband during all the German football matches. It was used as a sign of the German team’s commitment to diversity and openness. After this, the UEFA started an investigation in both the German Football Federation (DFB) and Manuel Neuer himself for the armband was perceived as a political statement. It led to a clash between the DFB, who actively supports the LGBTQ+ cause, and UEFA. Ultimately UEFA decided not to punish Neuer for wearing the armband. It stated that “The armband has been assessed as a team symbol for diversity and thus for a ‘good cause”. But Germany was scheduled to play Hungary. In preparation for this match, and having this cause in mind, the DFB sought to illuminate the Allianz Arena in rainbow colors, which UEFA – as the official tournament organiser in charge also of all branding – forbade. In the runup to the match, the question of showing the rainbow or not went very wide across the football world and beyond. Despite increasing pressure, UEFA kept with its decision that “rainbow lights would contravene its rules about political and religious neutrality”. As a response, many buildings all over Germany were lit up in rainbow colors during the team’s game against Hungary.

The tournament thus became a platform to support the LBGTQ+ community in Hungary and the rest of Europe. This put the UEFA in a difficult position for they struggled to draw a line between supporting #EqualGame and not allowing political statements. And this was not merely a debate among written or illuminated statements. In Hungary, Dutch fans were celebrating their upcoming game against the Czech Republic on the so-called Oranjeplein. To support the LBGTQ+ community, numerous rainbow flags were brought to Budapest. However, the Hungarian organisers decided to forbid the flags in the official fanzone. But UEFA did allow the fans to show the flags in the stadium. Weirdly enough, this was not the procedure in every stadium. Kristoffer Fǿns, a Danish supporter, explained how his rainbow flag was confiscated in the stadium in Baku where Denmark played the quarter-final against the Czech Republic. Amidst all this, UEFA released a statement that it Respects the Rainbow.

Beyond Covid-19

Another societal aspect that was holding EURO 2020 in its grip was the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the 60-year celebration, the tournament took place in different cities all over Europe. Only cities that allowed fans inside the stadium were accepted to host a game. Thus, for the first time in more than a year, fans were allowed back into the stadium. Experts at the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that full stadiums are potential super-spreader events, and the numbers of infections have seen to be rising as direct results of some matches.

Despite the warnings, football fans still chose to enjoy the tournament together. For me as a football fan, this is somehow understandable. Football is not the same without fans inside the stadium. Their support brings emotion and passion to the game. Due to the Covid-19 restrictions the excitement of the tournament was lacking in the Netherlands. These restrictions made sure that the so-called ‘Oranje gevoel’ (feelings of excitement in the Netherlands towards and during football tournaments) was wavering. Does football only bring excitement when you experience it with a group of people? Streets that were normally covered in the color orange, stayed painfully bleak and, despite this, we can holy hope that EURO 2020 would not be the catalyst for the next Covid-19 wave.

Snapshots of hope

UEFA EURO 2020 mirrored the political and societal situation of Europe itself. The tournament displayed that the fight against discrimination is still going on. The LBGTQ+ community is still fighting for acceptance and equal rights, and COVID-19 is far from gone in our everyday lives in Europe. All these aspects were evident during EURO 2020. Goldblatt claimed that EURO 2020 would “offer a snapshot of national attitudes to race across the continent”. For me, this snapshot is both depressing and hopeful. Even though the negative attitude we have seen towards taking the knee might be daunting in the game of England against Croatia, the booing was drowned out by applause by the rest of the stadium. This offers hope in the fight against discrimination. David Olusoga, for example, sees the English team as a beacon of hope in this regard. Coach Southgate believes that the team has the chance to affect society as a whole with a very inclusive team. “11 of the 23-man squad are black or mixed-race, and that diversity runs deeper, beyond so-called visible minorities. Harry Kane, for example, is of Irish descent”. However, the English fans are divided when it comes to the taking the knee gesture as the game against Croatia has shown. Therefore, only the future will tell if Southgate’s broader mission to impact society will succeed.

Thinking points

EURO2020 was a men’s football tournament. Matches were played. Goals were scored. Players got injured. Coaches got sacked. New talent was discovered. Veterans retired. As the world is ready to experience the final match between England and Italy, the tournament has shown once more how this particular sport, and the way in which it breathes mass participation, reflects to us what Europe is in 2021. At Football Makes History we try to explore the past to help wage useful conversations in the present about the future. So, we might ask ourselves, how will this tournament, which saw both the #EqualGame campaign and the ambiguous repression of rainbows, then be regarded decades from now:

  • As a stepping stone toward a more politically engaged sector, with national federations, players and fans expressing their values of anti-discrimination through the game?
  • As a particular pandemic-impacted tournament which was mainly experienced through online means?
  • As one of many cultural events which build bridges among the peoples of Europe, but also expose perceived and experienced differences?

Educators could debate UEFA EURO 2020 with students on two key issues:

  • UEFA applied a policy of neutrality. Did it succeed? In what way were politics represented throughout EURO 2020? And, are taking the knee and rainbow colors a form of politics by other means or part of #EqualGame?
  • UEFA organised this tournament to celebrate itself as a European body. The tournament took place in different cities all over Europe to create harmony between all participating countries, officially to “build bridges”. Did the tournament succeed? Did the tournament bring more unity within the continent?

How have you experienced this tournament? Do you think it brought more people together?

Today is the final day of the European Championship 2020, in 2021, whose central campaign was #EqualGame. How did that go?

Let’s review

Sign outside Parken Stadium, Copenhagen (Photo: Leif Jørgensen, Wikimedia Commons).
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