European Soccer Championships Negotiate COVID Restrictions

June 20, 2021 Updated: June 20, 2021


Postponed last year because of lockdowns, the 51 games of the European Championships are finally taking place—during another lockdown.

The difference this time is that mass vaccination programs have been underway for months, so European governments feel it is now safe to allow fans back into the stadiums. However, they don’t all agree on how many to let in, and that decision, strangely, was not determined by how many of their citizens had been jabbed.

Hungary had around 55 percent of its population vaccinated at the start of the tournament and is allowing 100 percent capacity at its stadium in Budapest. The UK had 61 percent with at least one dose of the vaccine and it chose to only allow 25 percent capacity into its Wembley national stadium.

The inconsistencies in the European nations’ responses to the COVID scare are now clearly visible in the varying crowd sizes and this has not been lost on the organising authority, UEFA (The Union of European Football Associations), either.

The European Championship usually has one host country, like the World Cup, but this time it is being played across 11 stadiums in 11 countries, not due to COVID this time, but to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding competition—make that the 61st due to COVID lockdowns.

Both the semi-finals and finals are supposed to be played at Wembley, although that is now in question due to Boris Johnson’s recent announcement that the present UK lockdown would continue for another 4 weeks until three days after the Championship finals take place on July 11th.

Although Wembley is planning to increase the seating capacity to 50 percent, that is still half the number Hungary is allowing, which would create much better viewing optics for UEFA to round off its soccer-fest.

According to The Times, the dramatic decision to move from London to Budapest may depend on whether the UK government will allow an exemption on quarantining for some 2,500 UEFA officials, politicians, sponsors and broadcasters that would otherwise need to self-isolate on arrival.

It claims UK Ministers are currently considering granting this exception, like they did earlier this month for the G7 summit in Cornwall. As with everything else they have imposed during the COVID period, they will figure there is likely to be little public outcry, especially if it saves the games for London.

Apart from the obvious crowd number variances across the Euros’ zone, which now stretches as far as Azerbaijan, there is another striking difference between the matches: those where players “take the knee”—mainly England’s—and the majority where they do not.

Following the death of George Floyd, footballers in the UK chose to “take the knee” for a moment’s silence at the start of every game. Initially, they had the words “Black Lives Matter” printed on the back of their soccer shirts instead of the usual surname of the player. Some also had BLM badges sewn on the front.

Their actions were supported by the English Football Association and UEFA views it to be in keeping with its zero-tolerance against racism: “Any player who wants to demand equality amongst human beings by taking the knee will be allowed to do so.”

In America, BLM is considered by many to be a Marxist organization whose supporters have been involved in many violent riots, but that seems of no concern to the UK’s multi-millionaire soccer stars who say they just want to make a stand against racism.

For them “taking the knee” has nothing to do with American footballer Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the U.S. national anthem, in 2016, when he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.”

Players at the Euros have been careful not to hold their “taking the knee” protest during the singing of the national anthem, but to make a more general statement by it, and so the event has been compressed to a few seconds on the pitch just before the referee starts the game.

There is the wider point about using sport to make political or moral points. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has banned athletes from taking the knee. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter bans any kind of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.” This will be tested later this this summer when Japan hosts the games.

The England manager, Gareth Southgate, said the England team’s actions were not in support of the Black Lives Matter organization: “We have got a situation where some people seem to think it is a political stand that they don’t agree with. That is not the reason the players are doing it. We are supporting each other.”

England defender Tyrone Mings said: “It’s never been about supporting Black Lives Matter as an organization. That was a cheap argument that people threw at the movement.”

Many soccer supporters disagree. As the English stadiums were empty during most of last season the gesture continued without controversy, but as soon as small numbers of fans were allowed back in to watch games some began booing their own teams.

This has now continued at an international level and the Euros have seen the start of an unusual tradition, whereby many England fans boo their team as they kneel and, once the opening whistle is blown, start cheering those very same players from then on.

Or at least they did until England’s lacklustre performance against Scotland saw its fans booing the players off as well. Some things in soccer don’t change.

Andrew Davies is a UK-based video producer and writer. His award-winning video on underage sex abuse helped Barnardos children’s charity change UK law, while his documentary “Batons, Bows and Bruises: A History of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,” ran for six years on the Sky Arts Channel. 

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Andrew Davies
Andrew Davies