Trix of the trade

Barney Ronay spent three weeks in foreign parts. Not Austria or Switzerland, but UEFA Town, a tightly policed, mascot-infested, first-class-all-the-way state dedicated not to football, but to money

According to a UEFA press release, the Euro 2008 mascots Trix and Flix embody competition, friendship, tolerance, teamwork, magic, style, ability and attitude. They also have distinct personalities. Flix is a cheeky scamp, but Trix “is more serious and self-controlled” – qualities not, it has to be said, usually associated with a jobbing actor in an eight-foot cartoon outfit doing the running man. At their unveiling, Swiss tournament director Christian Mutschler appeared completely serious when he said: “I am sure the mascots… will become a vital part of the understanding of the whole event.”

He had a point in the end. The big thing about Trix and Flix, who gambolled on the pitch before every game, was their eerie homogeneity. From Innsbruck to Vienna, the Warner Bros-created mascots ran through the same routine: fist-pump, Delia Smith-style hand to ear, knee slide, hip-hop freeze, then back to fist-pump and Delia.

Euro 2008 was a good tournament. Much of the actual football was attractive to watch. Off the pitch, however, it was a mind-­bogglingly corporate event. Following it around from inside the press caravan was like spending entire days being force-fed bread-crumbed filet of UEFA inside a UEFA marquee, before retiring to your UEFA-scented hotel room, light-headed on aqua UEFA, to dream uneasy dreams of UEFA. No wonder Flix, and even the less serious Trix, seemed a little affected by it all.

This feeling was summed up best by Alfred Ludwig, secretary of the Austrian FA, at their tournament-exit party after the 1-0 defeat by Germany. It was an unusual farewell bash. Big-haired VIPs ate executive sausage and drank free Prosecco; nobody really seemed that bothered Austria were out. Ludwig, alone, had some regrets about what he saw as the host nations’ back-bench role in it all.

“You have to understand that this is UEFA’s biggest money-making machine,” he told me. “I can understand that UEFA say it cannot give all the power to a national association, because if it doesn’t go well it has financial problems. But the problem is that you lose a little bit the identity of the host country. So the kind of tournament that we have here could happen in Spain or England or anywhere. This is like the Harlem ­Globetrotters travelling across Europe.”

Why would any FA be prepared to secure a once-in-a-career tournament and then hand the keys over to Michel Platini and his army of administrators? “There’s just so much money involved,” he shrugged. “I don’t think any national FA has the power to ask national TV stations for so much money. UEFA has so much more power than us.”

And there you have it: football, money and television. UEFA thoroughly had their way with the host nations at Euro 2008. These kinds of tournaments have long been considered an essentially televisual spectacle, but Austria and Switzerland saw this process cranked up to another level. So the business of actually being at this global entertainment event involved finding yourself allocated into one of three distinctly managed groups, each servicing the product.

The most visible group were the fans. On the face of it Austria and Switzerland were odd choices to stage a tournament of this size. Of the stadiums only Vienna’s Ernst Happel – a scaled-down version of the old Wembley – holds more than 42,000. As a result, both countries were stuffed with itinerant supporters carrying “suche tickets” signs, destined for the spill-over event, the fanzone. No other tournament has placed so much emphasis on the fanzone, rigging them up in every host city as though a fenced-off square with a flat screen, a hot dog stand and (in Innsbruck) a Teutonic country band playing German-accented covers of Achy Breaky Heart was an essential component of any football match.

The fact is they needed them because the stadiums were too small. The zones themselves, with their cheerleaders, their peripheral soccertainment and their championing of the zany hat, were a bland and synthetic alternative to the real thing. Albeit a potentially lucrative one for UEFA’s commercial partners: a drink of water in the Vienna fanzone cost a sensational €4.50 (£3.60).

Uniformly replica-shirted, herded into controlled areas, asked to gurn and cheer and create broadcast “atmosphere” on cue, supporters at Euro 2008 were packaged and parcelled as never before. It’s easy to sound like a wet blanket. Lots of people undoubtedly had lots of fun. But it was impossible to watch without feeling you were, at best, at a Bon Jovi concert; and at worst in the undiscovered manuscript for George Orwell’s great lost futuristic football tournament masterpiece.

The second largest group at Euro 2008 were the countless minions, wonks and clipboard-bearers of UEFA. This was the most nannying of tournaments. Enter the per­imeter around any stadium and suddenly you were in UEFA Town, a place where you can’t use your Visa card (to the bemusement of at least one furious Russian trying to buy water in an official shop) because this is MasterCard territory. Camcording inside the stadium was hysterically persecuted. No area was unpoliced, no patch of concrete unconverted into a corporate holding area. Austria loves a VIP and so, of course, do UEFA. When Russia played in ostentatiously wealthy Innsbruck, pretty much everyone in the stadium appeared to have arrived either by helicopter or on the UEFA bus.

Finally, there was the travelling army of the press. This was a genuinely global media event, with an unexpectedly huge Middle Eastern presence in particular (among the Al-Jazeera journalists all the talk was of how much Richard Keys was being paid for his studio spots in the 50°C heat of Doha).

Accreditation gave you free first-class travel and a city-to-city conveyor belt of ­freebies, hospitality and scattergun ­Austro-Swiss tourist propaganda. So in the lavish Innsbruck media lounge with its all-day waiter-service buffet, we were presented with a set by Euro pop star Haddaway and a talk by Tirol-based DNA expert Professor Richard Scheithauer all in the same day.

The media really were treated like players at Euro 2008. Both UEFA and the host nations spent huge amounts of money ensuring a cosseted ride for the massed hacks and talking heads. Besides hospitality, there were endless press conferences and photo-shoots. All this will have been seen as an investment. Not in football, as such, but in the message-bearers responsible for the current high-tide revenue stream.

Will it leave any mark? Probably not on Austria, surely one of the least football-daffy nations to have been awarded a major tournament. By the third week, fussballfieber – only ever a minor sniffle or tickle – had all but subsided. The posters of Andreas Ivanschitz holding up a Nutella jar in triumph had been uniformly ­moustached. The flags on cars had all but disappeared. In Vienna tickets were suddenly available on the streets and banks of empty seats began to appear in the stadium (notably for the Spain v Italy quarter-final). If there was a peculiar mania in the air it was more to do with other things: like subsidiary revenue streams and rights-­protection and product integrity.

You have to hand it to UEFA’s Harlem Globetrotters: they always put on a smooth show. But it is always the same show. Austria saw itself as too minor a power to quibble with this. No doubt Poland and Ukraine – who were awarded Euro 2012 at the expense of Italy – will feel the same. Either way, we can expect something very similar in four years’ time.

From WSC 258 August 2008