Behind the Spectacle: On Euro 2012

As Poland’s football team scored to go level with Russia at the Euro 2012 football championship finals, on Tuesday June 12th, President Bronislaw Komorowski, sporting the red and white scarf of the national side, leapt from his seat in joy. The stadium was a cauldron of nationalistic passion and emotion. To the president’s left, UEFA president Michel Platini was calm and controlled, seated and neutral, displaying the self-control of the professional administrator.

A few days earlier, at the opening match of the tournament, the effusive former dissident Komorowski – historian turned politician – was on Platini’s right, and left of the UEFA president was the towering figure of Ukraine president, Viktor Yanukovych. People sometimes wonder how UEFA can award tournaments to a society such as Ukraine, where Yanukovych retains wide popularity as a veteran of Ukraine politics, controversy rages over the imprisonment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and the incumbent president is known as Russia’s man, a Putin puppet from his earlier political career. Why doesn’t UEFA, such thinking goes, with its campaigns and policies for fair-play, equality and anti-racism, question the motives of those in power in Ukraine, ask whether the Yanukovych administration is an appropriate host for UEFA’s four-yearly showpiece? There are several possible answers.

First, football is an a-political arena, and it is the business of bodies such as UEFA to support the regional, continental spread of the game and mount a stirring and memorable spectacle; and that is all. Second, international football is the stuff of international diplomacy and Platini is a guest of the political hierarchy of the tournament’s co-hosts; the protocol is clear, and the guest does not question the host(s). Third, a mere sporting body can hardly dictate the national political and economic dynamics that place people in power and change the overall situation of a country; Ukraine led the joint bid for Euro 2012, the event was awarded in 2007, all in the light of the Orange revolution of 2004 that had elevated Yulia Tymoshenko to the premiership. Fourth, the UEFA president doesn’t want to rock any boats as he lines himself up for the FIFA presidency, for which every national vote counts, in a process that talks football development and not political positions and principles.

The first answer has been long discredited, as international sporting bodies deal with political institutions and processes as a matter of course. It is simply disingenuous for them roll out the old ‘sport and politics don’t mix’ line. The second answer has some practical credibility. Heads of state greet each other across ideological divides, and go ahead with visits when privately disapproving of aspects of a political regime. ‘Why shouldn’t presidents of international sporting bodies do the same?’, Platini might argue. The third answer is defensible; UEFA is not an international body dedicated to combating breaches in human rights, or righting a shattered global economy. We all know what happened to many economies in 2008, though Poland bucked the trend, shedding its own right-wing regime and enjoying a sustained phase of economic growth; whilst in Ukraine, Yanukovych took power in 2010.  And in unpredictable circumstances, honouring the commitment to stage the event offers a degree of certainty in an uncertain world. This is a reasonable argument, should UEFA choose to use it. But then there’s the fourth answer; and this is surely closer to truth of the matter. Make the new stadia; deliver the technology and the crowds (as respectable and civilized as possible please); deliver the fairy stories of the arrogant Dutch defeated by the lively Danes, and most of all of the little 35-year old golden boy Andriy Shevchenko heading host country Ukraine towards victory over the surprised Swedes. And the UEFA president will be happy, rocking no boats, raising no awkward political questions, accepting the hospitality and assurances of whatever host figure comes his way. ‘Football is a cultural product’, Platini has been taught to say, a way of diverting questions about politics, money, and ethics.

Platini came to power at UEFA in January 2007, and was re-elected by acclamation in March 2011. His campaign for the UEFA presidency was in part funded by FIFA, and in 1998 Platini had been the running mate – the face-of-football figure – for Sepp Blatter’s successful pitch for the FIFA presidency. Platini’s vote in 2007 was bolstered by the promises he’d made to east European nations both small and large, linked to the expansion of European club games in the new Europa League competition, and commitments to award big events to those nations. In the first year of his presidency, Platini shepherded UEFA towards the Ukraine (with the experienced pedigree of Poland in partnership) for Euro 2012. These are deep, interlocking networks, rooted in deals and reciprocal debts, and it would take more than the hunger strike of a jailed opposition leader, or the images of her bruised limbs, to bring UEFA out of its internal realpolitik, to address issues of political morality and human rights beyond the stadium or the perimeter of the pitch.

The Roman satirist Juvenal gave us the term ‘bread and races/circuses’ (panem et circenses) to account for the profile of popular games and contests in the decaying democracy of classical Rome. Michel Platini’s anodyne adherence to football as little more than a ‘cultural product’ creates a modern equivalent. The primary sponsors at Euro 2012 include Carlsberg and McDonald’s: ‘beer, burgers and spectacle’ might be the most appropriate slogan for Euro 2012 as the live crowds and the global media audience lap up the fare. Meanwhile the Ukraine’s burly president will wine and dine Platini, as former prime minister Tymoshenko lies languishing in jail awaiting charges of tax evasion, embezzlement, and, half way through the first week of Euro 2012, even linked by the Ukraine president – who defeated her for the presidency in 2010 – of involvement in a political killing.

Alan Tomlinson, June 13th 2012        


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