During the last round of the UEFA Champions League group stage, Manchester City fans booed the competition’s anthem. Again. And, once more, UEFA threatened to fine the team for what it considers “inappropriate behavior” from its fans for their repeated jeering of the competition’s official song. Ultimately, UEFA dropped its case.
When UEFA initially announced the probe on City fans, Twitter specialists and others on social media quickly turned to ridicule, understandably. It seems hard to understand why the booing of an apparently neutral ritual might be labeled as “inappropriate.” Instead, it raised the question of why UEFA is spending such seemingly unnecessary amounts of energy pursuing this nuisance, while other big problems – like racist chanting at matches, or having its president, former French international Michel Platini, suspended for 90 days under corruption allegations – loom over it.
But it is also understandable that UEFA wants to defend this piece of protocol at all costs. Since its inception, the Champions League has been a symbol of the transformation of European soccer from an incompetent endeavor, plagued by hooliganism and stadium disasters in the 1980s, to the epitome of glamor and high-quality performance of the contemporary game. And the Champions League anthem is, by far, its most distinguishable feature. It is not a mere formality, but part of a brand of the corporate identity of European club soccer, plastered all about in promos and advertisements surrounding the games. UEFA could lose a lot more than some dignity if the anthem were to become maligned.
Yet Manchester City fans are convinced that they had the right to protest it, and they have not been shy about it. The last time they did it was at the Sánchez Pizjuán stadium, where their team eventually defeated Spanish side Sevilla FC. City fans booed when a group of ballboys carried the Champions League banner to the center circle, they booed again when the Sevilla public announcement system did a test run of the anthem, and booed once more as the official anthem ceremony happened right before the match – though many decided to be quiet as they covered their mouths and held signs reading “boo” in an effort to mock UEFA’s sensitivity to the jeerings.
Manchester City fans have been at odds with UEFA since early last year, when the English team was found to have breached Financial Fair Play rules and were forced to cut down spending on new signings and have a restricted squad in European competitions. But it was after an incident in Moscow, during last season’s Champions League group stage, when the booing of the anthem became almost unanimous for the Blues faithful.
In that 2014-15 season, fans of Russian side CSKA started a fight against AS Roma fans in Rome’s Olimpico Stadium. UEFA then decreed that CSKA’s next European fixtures that were to be held in Moscow’s Arena Khimki – one of which was against City – had to be played without fans.
Many City supporters had already bought plane and game tickets and made the journey to Moscow anyway. There, they were denied entrance to the stadium and to a nearby building from where they could have seen the field. Meanwhile, about 300 CSKA supporters were granted entry to the stadium and could watch the game from the stands.
City fans felt that they and their team were being unfairly treated. (And it didn’t help that CSKA was the same team that, in 2013, had already been penalized for racially insulting City player Yaya Touré). Since then, City fans have been booing the anthem, not because they want to disrespect the tournament, but because it is the most obvious symbol of UEFA’s authority during the matches, its footprint on the ceremony.
For its part, UEFA is aware of the value of its anthem, and has measures in place to protect it from ridicule. When needed, the European confederation authority invokes section 16.2.g of its disciplinary regulations, which states that, in European matches, “all associations and clubs are liable” for “the disruption of national or competition anthems.”
The dual reference to national anthems and a competition’s official song might seem a vanity excess, the overreaction of bureaucrats too enamored with their own protocols. And, certainly, City fans booing the UEFA anthem seems largely insignificant when compared to fans booing national anthems at stadiums – like when Hong Kong fans booed the Chinese anthem last month, or when Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao fans jeered the Spanish anthem at a Cup final earlier this year. But for UEFA, the defense of its iconography is one of its highest priorities, because its whole business model in club soccer is based around its symbolism.
Notably, the Champions League anthem is not just a corporate song that marks the beginning of a particular event. Fans around the world recognize it as the introduction to a recognizable kind of soccer, and fans inside the stadium sing its chorus with the passion often reserved for national anthems. Sometimes, you can catch players getting emotional during it, or whole towns going delirious when it’s finally their turn to hear it on their home ground.
It has come to convey a powerful, yet simple message: this is it, these are the biggest games on Earth, and we are privileged to be playing a part in them. Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said that, when his team Juventus was relegated to Serie B last decade, and they were out of Champions League competition for two seasons, hearing the anthem was one of the things that hurt the most. “I used to hear it from my sofa, I used to think it wasn’t fair,” he once said.
It has become part of soccer folklore, a song that is not just a song. And maybe this is why there seems to be a widespread belief that the anthem is a centuries-old piece, reappropriated by adding some lyrics on top of it, as if it was just the logical conclusion of European tradition brought on to the pitch.
But the song was commissioned by UEFA in 1992, when the European Cup was rebranded into the Champions League, adding more teams, group stages, and creating a new kind of brand. Craig Thompson, then a managing director at TEAM (the company in charge of the rebranding), said: “There had been a lot of hooligan incidents, fan disasters and all that, so the aim in creating the Champions League was to ‘class it up.’”
The task of “classing up” the music fell to English composer Tony Britten, who was told he should work off of “Zadok the Priest,” one of the four anthems composed by George Frideric Handel for the coronation of British king George II in 1727. Britten was also told to add a choir, which he did, creating the now iconic “The Champions!” chorus.
This song replaced national anthems in the pre-game ceremonies, creating a feeling of grandeur, of a stage larger than its own setting. And, as the economic power in world soccer tilted heavily towards Europe, the Champions League became the showcase of not just the continent’s best teams, but of the world’s biggest players.
Almost completely devoid of national identities, when the song plays before a Barcelona and Bayern Munich match, for example, it conveys that this is not just a showing of a team from Spain and a team from Germany, but a matchup of Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez, Paul Pogba, Lewandowski, David Alaba, Thomas Müller and others, for the world to watch.
The world tunes in because it is promised something special. And we have been trained to accept that, when we hear those opening string chords, we are in for just that, something truly remarkable, the pinnacle of the sport. But while not all the games meet that standard, UEFA can market that experience, extending the Champions League’s cover of greatness to its various sponsors.
The official anthem has become as holy as a national song because it is an essential part of what European soccer is; it is what bonds the most important union of the modern European game: its product on the pitch and its corporate identity. Thus, it is just one other reminder of the enormous amounts of money that runs the world’s beloved sport. While a nation might question itself when its symbols are protested, UEFA can only pretend to be upset at what its competitions mean, and only from a marketing standpoint.
City fans (or fans of other teams) do well at booing, because they remind us that it is those of us watching are the ones who give meaning to the Champions League, and while we might not be able to change the corporate guidelines of the competition, we certainly can protest those who set them.