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EURO 2020: 'The balance of power is shifting from sponsors to athletes'

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By Matthew Holroyd
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Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Manuel Locatelli have all moved sponsored drinks from view in recent press conferences.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Manuel Locatelli have all moved sponsored drinks from view in recent press conferences.   -   Copyright  AP
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Moving a drinks bottle across a desk can, it seems, result in the market loss of billions of euros.

Footballers would expect to be judged for their actions and movement on the pitch at the European Championships, but now their actions off it are generating almost as many headlines and social media discussions.

Before Portugal's opening Group Stage match against Hungary, Cristiano Ronaldo prepared to face the media at a press conference in Budapest alongside his coach, Fernando Santos.

But before he took questions, Ronaldo made a point of moving two purposefully placed bottles of Coca-Cola from in front of his chair.

Ronaldo -- now the highest-ever goalscorer at the European Championships -- placed the UEFA drinks sponsor out of sight and held up a bottle of water.

"Agua (water)," he told the cameras, with an obvious expression of contempt. Just a day later another international icon echoed Ronaldo's gesture.

French midfielder Paul Pogba was clearly not satisfied with the non-alcoholic bottle of Heineken -- another UEFA sponsor -- placed in front of him in his post-match press conference.

Following in the footsteps of Portugal forward, Pogba discreetly removed the bottle from the lectern, and that gesture quickly went viral too.

And then after scoring twice in Italy's win over Switzerland on Wednesday, forward Manuel Locatelli moved two bottles of Coca-Cola out of view of his press conference, with a mimicking shout of "acqua" (water) audible.

The impact of simple gestures

Whether in the name of health or perhaps even religion, the actions of players against powerful corporate sponsors have caught the world's attention.

Pogba, a practicing Muslim, made no comment on the matter of removing the bottle of non-alcoholic Heineken.

Just hours earlier, he had been awarded the Heineken 'star of the match' award for his performance in France's 1-0 win over Germany. But his subsequent gesture might have been an embarrassment for the Dutch company.

After Ronaldo's Coca-Cola gesture, Heineken had tweeted from their official account, jokingly acknowledging that the Portuguese forward preferred water. But after Pogba's own actions, the tweet has since been deleted.

The market value of Coca-Cola seems to have suffered most this week, with an estimated loss of around $4bn (€3.35bn) after Ronaldo's actions.

But the American drinks giant has belittled the impact, issuing a short statement that "everyone is entitled to their drink preferences."

UEFA is not expected to punish players for their actions, given that players are offered a selection of drinks choices at each press conference.

'Athletes themselves are beginning to take control'

Professional footballers have for years been surrounded by corporate sponsors, not just a backdrop of adverts and signage, but now also products placed deliberately in front of them.

But recently, those athletes are seemingly taking more steps to control the products that surround them at press conferences and on-pitch interviews.

"This environment is becoming more pervasive," said Professor Simon Chadwick from the Centre of Eurasian Sports Industry.

"For me, it signals that the pendulum of power is swinging from sponsors and commercial partners back towards athletes," he told Euronews

"Over the last decade, business deals have effectively suppressed athletes' voices, which have been controlled by corporate communications teams."

Both Ronaldo and Pogba enjoy multi-million euro contracts respectively with sportswear brands Nike and Adidas. And with their influence in the sport and beyond so large, the gestures could lead others at the European Championships to follow suit.

Experts have suggested that some players will copy Ronaldo and Pogba or risk seemingly endorsing a specific brand.

Simon Chadwick also believes that the increasing role of social media has been "significant" in the shift in the power dynamic between athletes and corporate sponsors.

"More recently, the athletes themselves are beginning to take control of space around themselves," he said.

"With the continued growth of social media and the rise of athlete activism, athletes feel confident and secure enough to step up and speak out, knowing that they are not just representing themselves but also fans and consumers too."

"Athletes do feel empowered and have control of spaces like press conferences and their voices no longer denied by commercial interests".

Former international player pokes fun at the situation

Across the European Championships, bottled drinks are fast becoming a regular topic at press conferences.

On Thursday, Scotland's John McGinn quipped "nae coke" as he took a bottle of water before speaking to the media.

But while many viral tweets expressed humour at the gestures by Ronaldo and Pogba, there were also accusations of hypocrisy.

Ronaldo, for example, has himself previously appeared on advertising campaigns for Kentucky Fried Chicken. And one former Belgium international footballer has already parodied the episodes.

In an Instagram story, Radja Nainggolan -- who was not selected for the European Championships -- uploaded a meme of his face superimposed on Ronaldo's press conferences.

Surrounding him in the edited picture were bottles of rum, vodka, bourbon and even rubbing alcohol.

"Come on, let's have a laugh," Nainggolan added in a caption.

Additional sources • EFE, DPA