Dear Uefa, why have we been fined €5,000 for ‘Uefa mafia’ chants?

The words were audible in our women’s game, but as president of Brann, I argue they are within freedom of expression

Brann supporters at the home leg of the Women’s Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona. 
Photograph: Ane Frosaker/SPP/Shutterstock

By Aslak Sverdrup, first published in The Guardian on April 2. 2024

Have you ever been fined for expressing something that is clearly within international legislation on freedom of expression? We have. In a Women’s Champions League match in Bergen this year.

For a short period during our game against St Pölten in January, our supporters chanted “Uefa mafia” after not being awarded a free kick. Big deal? Apparently so, as we were fined €5,000 (£4,275) by Uefa for it. In women’s football, that is a lot of money and about 10% of the prize money for winning the match.

It demonstrates that Uefa is challenging freedom of expression and clearly legal criticism towards themselves, the most powerful football leaders in Europe. It also exposes the equally important issue of disproportionate sanctions that quell the very enthusiasm for football that Uefa aspires to ignite.

For 114 out of 116 years in existence, Brann had only men’s football. That changed in 2022 when we established Brann Women after acquiring the top Norwegian women’s team Sandviken. The hard work that went into this merger has paid off, and equality between men and women is now central to our strategy. We still have a long way to go, but we are ready to go all the way.

Brann has managed to develop and expand a strong supporter culture that includes our women’s team and is the only club in Norway (and one of the very few in Europe) to do so. Successes such as selling out the stadium for our Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona in eight minutes or taking 200 supporters to Prague for the game against Slavia are not a given, and we have worked hard to create this environment. More than 600 fans traveled with us to Barcelona for the return leg last week.

Our supporters have fully embraced our strategy and support our women’s and men’s teams with equal passion. “We are from Bergen and we sing what we want,” they shout with enthusiasm and conviction. Coming from a country that places a very high value on freedom of expression, we are deeply concerned that these core values are challenged and penalised by the top level of European football.

More than 600 Brann fans traveled to Barcelona for the second leg of the quarter-final. 
Photograph: Eric Alonso/Uefa/Getty Images

In its decision, Uefa’s control, ethics, and disciplinary body stated the “Uefa mafia” chants from the club’s supporters are “provocative and offensive and are, thus, not fit for a sports event.”

In doing this, the body has punished us for being in breach of the same article 16(2) (e) as other discriminatory chants. In a footballing world that sadly has too much racism, homophobia, misogyny, and discrimination, it is vital to protect vulnerable groups of people from discriminatory chants. People of colour, the LGBTQ+ community and women should all feel safe in our stands and our pitches. Preventing and penalising discriminatory chants against them is our job as a club and Uefa’s job as organisers.

However, one group does not need this protection. The European Convention on Human Rights holds freedom of expression as a core human right. This freedom has boundaries, which are set and held by the European Court of Human Rights, which offers special protection to particularly vulnerable groups and restricts and punishes expressions inciting violence and rebellion. Public insults against individuals may also cross the boundaries of free speech.

Legal entities, such as Uefa, do not enjoy the same protection as individuals. There is no “pressing social need,” as the European Court of Human Rights has phrased it, to protect Uefa from insults. In a modern society, it is especially problematic that Uefa both judges and sets penalties, determining whether an expression is an insult and then handing out substantial sanctions. The chant “Uefa mafia” heard during our women’s games is obviously not to be interpreted as a factual statement, implying that Uefa represent the mafia or any other form of organised crime.

Brann line up against Barcelona at the Johan Cruyff Stadium less than two years after their women’s team was formed. Photograph: Urbanandsport/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Chants at a football match must be interpreted in light of their context. In football, emotions are intense. When incidents happen on the field, these chants are offered as expressions of subjective frustration and judgments of value and are often of a satirical nature. Very few people outside the Uefa offices view the chant “Uefa mafia” as offensive or outside the boundaries of free speech. When these expressions are sanctioned in the same way as other discriminatory chanting, Uefa weakens our understanding of what is provocative and offensive.

We have appealed against the decision, saying that Uefa must adhere to the minimum standards for freedom of expression as protected by the ECHR Article 10. We have also asked how it has interpreted the chants. We have asked “who or what have they provoked and offended?” and “why it is necessary in a democratic society to sanction these chants?”

Uefa needs to enter 2024 and prepare for the future. Rather than constructing barriers, join our women in breaking glass ceilings. Ignore the calls of mafia and rejoice instead in the support our women receive from the stands. Once Uefa supports freedom of expression where appropriate, we believe that the chant “Uefa mafia” will be less interesting and less frequent, and we can all go back to the important and inspiring job of lifting women’s football together.

Aslak Sverdrup is the president of Brann

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