The DFB vs UEFA: A Row Over Rainbows

Where it Begins

This story begins two years ago. In the summer of 2019, a Pride campaign began for Euro 2020. The #EqualGame campaign focused on promoting the idea Euro 2020 would be for everyone. UEFA answered questions about the campaign by emphasizing the need to ensure LGBTQIA+ people feel welcome and included in football. However, UEFA’s rainbow stance eventually went very wrong.

18 months ago at the draw to determine the Euro 2020 groups, there was a fateful twist. In November 2019, Germany, Portugal, and France were drawn into Group F along with the Pathway A play-off winner. After being delayed due to the pandemic, the play-off matches were finally completed in November of 2020, with Hungary beating Iceland 2-1 to qualify for Euro 2020, and thus completing Group F.

In the political world, Hungary has been moving further to the right. The country’s politics have been steadily shifting toward right-wing nationalism over the past several years. In 2019 Freedom House, a non-profit organization that examines political rights and civil liberties in every state, demoted Hungary from “free” to “partly free.” In doing so, Hungary became the first European Union member to have a classification other than “free.”

The right-wing trend has continued and in mid-June, the Hungarian Parlement passed a law preventing LGBTQIA+ materials from being shown to minors. Additionally, the law can be interpreted as connecting pedophilia to homosexuality. The passing of this legislation has lead to protests and backlash worldwide, including from Hungary’s Euro 2020 Group F opponent Germany.

Row 1: A Rainbow Armband

As June is Pride Month many teams, both club and International, have shown support for LGBTQIA+ people in various ways. The German National Team chose to do so as well. Manuel Neuer, the German captain, has worn a rainbow captain’s armband in Germany’s Euro 2020 matches thus far. It is a small gesture to show support for the community during Pride Month. A gesture that was given little serious attention until UEFA decided to intervene.

On June 20th, it was revealed that UEFA was opening an investigation into Neuer’s rainbow armband. The grounds for the investigation were for violating the rule banning political statements from being made during matches. The general belief behind the rule being that politics should not interfere with sport. UEFA’s investigation was to determine if the armband was in fact a political statement. Should UEFA determine it was a political statement, both Neuer and the DFB could be fined.

As soon as the UEFA investigation became public knowledge, UEFA faced massive public backlash. The main argument among the public being that supporting LGBTQIA+ people is basic human decency. Journalists and fans alike took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with UEFA’s investigation.

The majority of the public was unhappy with UEFA even considering opening an investigation into the armband during Pride Month. Especially as football still struggles with LGBTQIA+ acceptance. In fact, just days before UEFA opened the investigation into Neuer’s armband, FIFA issued sanctions on the Mexican Football Federation. This after fans used a homophobic slur chants during Olympic Qualifying.

To the relief of many, within a few hours of the news of the investigation being made public, the DFB released a statement. That statement announced UEFA had suspended the armband investigation. UEFA ruled that since the armband was promoting diversity there would be no punishment for Neuer or the DFB.

“We want to fight racism and homophobia as a team. Some teams kneel – for us Manu wears the rainbow armband. The Allianz Arena should be lit up in the colors of the rainbow. I think it’s great that this is being highlighted in several campaigns.”

Leon Goretzka, DFB midfielder

The swift reversal from UEFA regarding the armband was seen as the end to a very unnecessary saga. Most of the commentary featured jokes about UEFA getting common sense and realizing it is the 21st century. While there was still considerable outrage over even opening an investigation, the quick reversal brought the temperature back down. However, a rainbow lighting request at the Allianz Arena meant things did not remain calm for long.

Row 2: A Rainbow Stadium

Following the armband incident and in light of the anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation passed by the Hungarian Parliament, the Munich City Council wanted to show solidarity with Hungarian LGBTQIA+ people. For Germany’s final group stage match against Hungary at the Allianz Area, the council submitted a request to UEFA to light the outside of the stadium up in rainbow colors.

The Allianz Arena with rainbow lights
Rainbow Allianz Arena

Despite suspending the investigation into Neuer’s armband, UEFA rejected the request for a rainbow Allianz Arena. UEFA cited two key reasons for denying the request. The first being that every stadium hosting matches during the tournament, is required to use official UEFA colors or the colors of teams in the tournament. UEFA claimed that “rainbow” did not meet that requirement. The second reason for denying the request was a result of UEFA deeming the action to be political. UEFA argued that since the decision to light-up the stadium in rainbow colors was in response to Hungarian politics, the act would become political in nature.

UEFA came under fire again. The decision to block the rainbow lighting was heavily criticized by fans, journalists, and major clubs. Once again the main argument against UEFA’s decision was support for LGBTQIA+ people was that it is meant to acknowledge and encourage people to be who they are and show that they are welcome in football. Additionally, the difference in ruling between the stadium lighting and Neuer’s armband made the situation harder to accept than it otherwise would have been.

Despite calls from fans and journalists to simply light the stadium up anyway, the Allianz Area was not lit in rainbow colors the night of the Hungary match. Even so, the German people made sure the world knew where they stand on LGBTQIA+ rights.

Rainbows Over Germany

In the days leading up to the Hungary match, the German players made sure to voice their opinions on the situation. During the pre-match press conference, defender Mats Hummles, midfielder Leon Goretzka, and manager Joachim Löw all spoke in favor of using the match to promote LGBTQIA+ acceptance and defended Neuer’s rainbow armband.

After UEFA’s denial to light the Allianz Area up in rainbow colors, the Germans took matters into their own hands. It began with Munich’s mayor giving a speech criticizing UEFA’s decision. He then announced that Pride flags would be flown at Munich’s town hall and non-Allianz Area Munich landmarks would be illuminated in rainbow colors.

“Tomorrow, as the city of Munich, we will still send a clear sign of our solidarity and our respect for sexual equality to Hungary and the world.”

Dieter Reiter, Munich Mayor

In response to UEFA’s decision and Reiter’s encouragement, the Bundesliga teams announced they would do what UEFA banned Munich from doing. In a massive league-wide effort across all divisions, the Bundesliga would light up all of Germany’s stadiums rainbow. All across Germany stadiums were lit in rainbow colors with Pride flags in the wind.

The Germans did not stop with just lighting up their stadiums and flying Pride flags from government buildings. The fans attending the match carried the Pride celebration to the stadium on their own. Many draped themselves in Pride flags and wore rainbow clothing. The DFB also provided 10,000 miniature Pride flags to fans. The position of the DFB was that if UEFA would not let the Allianz Area be lit on the outside, the fans would color the inside rainbow.

“In addition to taking a clear stance against any form of discrimination in the context of a Europe-wide tournament, it also has to take into account that a political statement should be made against a parliamentary decision of a participating country.”

Rainer Koch, DFB interim president

The response from the German people to UEFA’s rainbow light ban, gathered international attention. The amount of coverage, far greater than it would have been had UEFA permitted the Allianz Area’s rainbow lighting. Germany made it clear to the world, football is for everyone. Discrimination is not acceptable.

Meanwhile, inside the stadium, the rainbow party continued. First, when the Hungarian national anthem was played, a German fan ran onto the pitch with a Pride flag. He stopped right in front of the Hungarian squad, putting the Pride flag on full display, before being tackled and removed by security. He received much praise on social media for his actions.

Then during the match, Neuer continued wearing his rainbow armband. Afterward, in his post-match interview, he made sure to keep the armband visible by holding it in his hand and repetitively touching his face. By doing so, the armband could not be cropped out by broadcasters.

Upon the conclusion of the match, German players took to social media to show their support. Leon Goretzka, one of the DFB’s more out-spoken players, posted a picture of his goal heart celebration accompanied by the caption “Spread Love 🏳️‍🌈.”

Despite UEFA’s denial of the Allianz Area’s rainbow lights, Munich and all of Germany, was covered in rainbows to celebrate LGBTQIA+ people and to protest UEFA and the Hungarian law. Wednesday night was a display of solidarity and love in Germany. UEFA blocked one stadium’s rainbow lights, so Germany painted the entire nation in rainbows. While the stadium lights were banned, the German people decided to become the light.

UEFA Explains

The events of Wednesday prompted UEFA released a statement regarding “the rainbow.” To say that it was not well-received is an understatement.

UEFA's statement claiming to "respect the rainbow"

The first issue is that UEFA never actually mentioned LGBTQIA+ people, or even sexuality in general, in the statement. Instead UEFA chose to only refer to the matter as “the rainbow.” In fact the “background, belief or gender” UEFA references can, at best, be stretched to cover transgender and non-binary individuals. However, it reads more like UEFA is addressing a discrepancy between men’s and women’s football. Not trying to promote inclusion of those whose gender identity does not match their assigned gender at birth. What UEFA needs to understand, the rainbow is a symbol. Claiming to respect the symbol does not mean respect for the the people the symbol represents.

The second issue with UEFA’s statement is the decision that “the rainbow” is not a political symbol. The disagreement being that human rights are inherently political, as politics ensures both their protection and oversees their violation. As LGBTQIA+ rights are not protected by every nation in the tournament, there is no way the symbol of the rainbow can be anything other than political.

The reasoning from UEFA for the decision is also a point of contention. Saying that since the stadium light request came as a result of a political decision from Hungary, the rainbow lights were a political act. However, since LGBTQIA+ rights and support are always connected to politics and culture this case is no different than any other.

Then there is, perhaps the most compelling complaint, made by the interim DFB president. This argument is that when there is an injustice, those witnessing it must stand up against it. Hungary crossed a line and violated human decency. In order to claim to “respect the rainbow,” there must be action when “the rainbow” is disrespected. That action is and always will be political. Failing to take action in that situation is unacceptable.

Fortunately, the German people stepped up in this case. UEFA failed to acknowledge their role in preventing discrimination, but Germany did not. The people did what the Euros governing body would not; they showed Hungary and the world that LGBTQI+ discrimination is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. In doing so, the German people brought more attention to Hungary’s discrimination and UEFA’s tolerance of it.

It’s Money, Not Pride

UEFA claim to want to promote a tournament for everyone where everyone feels welcome. When a member nation in that tournament is activity passing legislation that harms the group of people UEFA is claiming to welcome, something must be done. The Germans and the DFB stepped up to actually execute a plan to make LGBTQIA+ people feel welcome in football. Instead of celebrating their actions, UEFA took disciplinary actions and rejected the support.

UEFA can not claim to “respect the rainbow” one day and then reject or investigate gestures of solidarity and LGBTQIA+ Pride the next. UEFA can not be allowed to use Pride when it is a convenient way to bring in revenue and positive publicity. Only then turn around and claim simple actions of support by players and federations are “political” and therefore banned.

Given some of the rumors over the past few weeks that UEFA may move the Euro 2020 Final out of England to Hungary, the objection makes sense. UEFA would not want to anger a potential host. While it looks like the details have been worked out with the UK government, Hungary remains their back-up plan. Given Hungary’s lack of COVID precautions should UEFA need to move the final, the highest profit would be in Hungary.

UEFA is only concerned with money. Everything UEFA and FIFA do, is all about making money. In terms of rainbows, this means marketing LGBTQIA+ acceptance and participation to the more progressive member nations. The Pride backgrounds, campaign slogans, and statements on inclusion are just ways to generate revenue from the viewers in those countries.

However, UEFA bscktrack on their “core values” the second a less progressive, or in the case of Hungary-out right discriminatory-nation is involved. Hungary has the ability to hurt UEFA’s pocket, so UEFA does what the Hungarians want; they deny the request to light the Allianz Arena and open an investigation into an armband.

Even the final decision across the two incidents, tries to preserve both sides of the situation. UEFA denies the stadium light request for Hungary, but allows the Germans to keep the armband. For the more progressive fans, UEFA is still allowing subtle Pride support. While on the flip side, UEFA are also protecting Hungary from backlash.

UEFA does not care about LGBTQIA+ people now, and they never have. They do not “respect the rainbow” or welcome everyone into the beautiful game. UEFA only cares about making money. Support for LGBTQIA+ people will only happen when it makes UEFA money. UEFA will investigate or ban support by federations, the second that support for LGBTQIA+ people could even have the slightest of chance of a loss in revenue. It is unacceptable.

LGBTQIA+ people are humans and every human has a place in the beautiful game, just the way they are. Any team or federation should have the ability to show their support at any time, especially in response to discrimination. For the second time in this tournament, UEFA made terrible decisions that neglected real living human beings. All to ensure they did not lose any money. When UEFA tries to pull something like this, the world will be tasked with responding the way Germany did Wednesday; by becoming the stadium lights.

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