UEFA’s ‘own goal’—Euro Cup sponsors stumble in biggest PR crisis in years

June 24, 2021, 3:16 PM UTC

Over a dramatic 90-minute stretch of last night’s two UEFA Euro Cup soccer matches, the first-place position between France, Germany, Portugal, and Hungary changed nine times. The fireworks began well before that when a pitch invader stormed the Germany-Hungary match at the Allianz Arena in Munich. He hoisted a huge rainbow-colored flag and stood in front of the Hungarian team as their anthem played.

The pitch invasion was hardly a surprise. Prior to the big game, UEFA’s governing body struck down a proposal from the Munich City Council to light up the stadium in rainbow colors. The politicians said they wanted to “send a visible message of solidarity to the LGBT community in Hungary, which is suffering under recent legislation passed by the Hungarian government,” under the country’s autocratic ruler Viktor Orbán.

The uproar left the big brands that sponsor the heavily watched tournament—from Coca-Cola to Volkswagen to TikTok—flat-footed. They scrambled to muster some kind of response that acknowledged the seriousness of the matter while trying their best to avoid any corporate blowback.

Adding to the complexity, they had to be careful not to step on UEFA’s toes, nor be seen to condone UEFA’s decision to cancel the rainbow-colored demonstration.

How’d they do?

Here’s a word from our sponsors

Both Heineken and JustEat Takeaway were the first to weigh in, sending out vaguely football-themed Pride images.

A Heineken spokesperson told Fortune: “One of the values close to our hearts is respect for all people, and we look forward to enjoying the rest of the tournament with everyone.”

Meanwhile, JustEat posted its logo in Pride colors on green turf and noted in a statement to the press that even if it’s only a nudge, the company hopes the small gesture of support helps. A spokesperson said, “We all deserve to be our own selves and be recognized for it.”

Volkswagen CEO Ralf Brandstätter released a statement in German on LinkedIn prior to the match, saying that the carmaker would have welcomed a Pride flag at the Allianz stadium in Munich, calling such a thing a “strong signal for diversity and tolerance,” which Volkswagen stands by. But, he added, the company respects UEFA’s decision to not light up the stadium for reasons of political neutrality. The message was accompanied by a video of the remote-controlled toy Volkswagen-branded car that brings out the football in the Euro tournament, repainted in rainbow colors.

Coca-Cola was more blunt. “This is a matter for UEFA,” the company told Fortune. The company noted it is one of the world’s most inclusive brands and has supported LGBTQ+ communities in the past. Despite the decision to keep the stadium monochrome, Coca-Cola’s support “stands firm.”

Lastly, TikTok—the only Chinese sponsor to respond publicly—told the media that it had spoken to UEFA about the actions at the stadium and encouraged the football body to join the company in supporting the LGBTQ+ community. It added that to show its commitment to supporting and promoting LGBTQ+ voices in Germany, TikTok is launching a new campaign called #LoveisLove today.  

In just about all cases, the sponsors’ messaging was strong on branding (those logos!), repetition (for corporate values), and the not-so-subtle plea: (Can we all please talk about something else, like, maybe football?).

Fortune also contacted other sponsors and advertisers of the 2021 Euro Cup, including FedEx, Qatar Airways, Booking.com, Gazprom, Alipay, Vivo, HiSense. They did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kickoff

UEFA, meanwhile, is hoping to brush the incident under the rug. On Wednesday, it posted a pointed statement alongside a rainbow covered logo saying it wasn’t the one being “political”; the Munich politicians were the ones being “political.”

For good measure, it added that for UEFA, the rainbow is a signifier of its “commitment to a more diverse and inclusive society.”

Hungary’s new anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is in stark contrast with the legal protections EU countries guarantee all citizens. As such, the European Commission this week said it would open legal proceedings against the country.

A law passed by the Hungarian government earlier this week, ostensibly targeting child sex abuse, included last-minute additions that outlawed LGBTQ+ content for children. Lawmakers argued it “promotes homosexuality.”

The law was slammed as a “shame” by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“I will use all the powers of the Commission to ensure that the rights of all EU citizens are guaranteed, whoever you are and wherever you live,” she noted.

In Hungary, marriage is recognized only between a man and woman, and same-sex partners cannot adopt children.

For that reason, critics are slamming UEFA’s no-rainbow-lights ruling.

“This is an own goal for UEFA,” says Ian Johnson, chief executive of Out Now Consulting, an LGBT+ inclusion specialist consulting firm.

He adds that once directed to light up the stadium, UEFA was put into a political situation no matter which direction it chose. Johnson even called the UEFA decision to state its case alongside a rainbow-covered logo “one of the worst instances of rainbow-washing” he had ever seen.

On a positive note, public support has rallied louder as a result of the incident. Football fans flocked to the arena in rainbow-colored flags and LGBTQ+ supporters stood outside and handed out Pride flags before viewers entered the event.

Germany’s Leon Goretzka, who scored the 84th-minute winning goal, made a heart with his hands in celebration and later dedicated it to Pride on Twitter.

Germany’s captain Manuel Neuer wore a rainbow-clad band around his arm. And of course there was the activist who ran on stage trailing a huge Pride flag behind him—garnering greater visibility than if UEFA had agreed to the stadium lights in the first place.

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