Pele once said: “Football is like a religion to me. I worship the ball and treat it like a god.” Maradona was equally evangelical in this offering: “football isn’t a game, or a sport; it’s a religion.” Uefa, European football’s governing body, is adamant that there is no place for political or religious overtones in the sport.
Well, it’s not a hard and fast rule. After all players bless themselves, before, during and after matches, occasionally pre- or post-goal celebrations and are often caught on camera gesticulating skywards - Raheem Sterling did so after scoring the winner for England against Czech Republic - one presumes not in homage to a blimp or a passing aeroplane, all without a hint of official censure.
No, Uefa is fluid and flexible when it comes to rule implementation. Take for example their decision to deny a request from the Munich city council to illuminate the Allianz Arena in Munich in rainbow colours in support of LGBTQ+ rights, as a beacon of inclusivity and diversity for Germany's Euro 2020 match against Hungary on Wednesday.
At the same time German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer will be permitted to continue to wear the rainbow colours on his captain’s armband following a Uefa investigation that adjudicated that it did not contravene its policy on political neutrality. Confused? Don’t be. Rules are meant to be.....interpreted.
The original request to light up the stadium was ostensibly to protest against legislation passed in the Hungarian parliament banning gay people from featuring in school educational material or television shows for under-18s.
Munich’s mayor Dieter Reiter described Uefa’s ruling as “shameful” and instead plans to illuminate a wind turbine across from the stadium in the rainbow colours.
It’s a wonder that Reiter is actually surprised that Uefa took the decision, as they obviously share the view of Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, who said: “I believe it is harmful and dangerous to confuse politics with sport.”
This is the same country whose prime minister Viktor Orbán defended the booing of Republic of Ireland players by Hungarian supporters, claiming that the Irish team had provoked the home crowd with the gesture of taking a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement; no issue there with politicising a moment in sport.
Expecting Uefa to act as a beacon of moral and ethical enlightenment would be commensurate with holding the belief that Narnia exists on the other side of a wardrobe door.
Speaking of disbelief, Roy Keane’s value as a pundit on ITV was once again emphasised when asked about a three-handed conversation between Chelsea teammates Billy Gilmour, Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell in the tunnel after England’s 0-0 draw with Scotland.
Gilmour tested positive for Covid-19 and as a result of the ‘chat’ Mount and Chilwell were unavailable for England’s game against the Czech Republic. Keane ventured: “Why would you want to speak to an opposition player for over 20 minutes? I don’t care if he is your club teammate or not; I very rarely speak to anybody for over five minutes.”
England and Scotland were both in action on Tuesday. Given the fact that Gareth Southgate’s team and their opponents the Czech Republic had already qualified for the knockout stages of the tournament, given a Celtic brotherhood, given former Scottish midfielder Gary Mackay’s place in Irish football folklore, surely RTÉ would demonstrate a preference in showing Scotland’s game against Croatia on the primary channel?
Not on your telly. Even though there was something at stake in Hampden Park, the national broadcaster elected to show the English match to feed the national preoccupation with our neighbours in football matters. In fairness RTÉ did show the goals in Glasgow as they materialised and considering the outcome it proved a small mercy.
Prior to the England game Liam Brady and Didi Hamann combed through Southgate’s selection and there was a fair amount of nit-picking.
The primary concern, or at least that of Hamann, was how Jadon Sancho’s exile continues, describing the decision as “astonishing” particularly as in the absence of Phil Foden; Arsenal’s teenage tyro, Bukayo Saka, was preferred to Sancho. The return of Harry Maguire, Jack Grealish’s place in the starting team, the questionable form of Harry Kane and contribution of Raheem Sterling received an airing.
Fast forward to half-time with Sterling’s goal the difference between the sides. Darragh Maloney suggested that “Southgate had got his team selection right.” The panel agreed that the short answer was “yes.” England were hardly troubled, the Czechs rarely bothered, the game played with the bristling aggression and intensity of a testimonial.
There was even time for the lesser spotted Sancho to be released from the captivity of the stands: six minutes, more of a box-ticking exercise than a decision of substance. That can wait for another day, secure in the knowledge that the immediate road leads to Wembley.