On November 7th of this year, Supporters Direct Europe (SD Europe) launched its first position paper, ‘The Heart of the Game: Why Supporters are Vital to Improving Governance in Football’, at an event hosted by Ivo Belet MEP at the European Parliament in Brussels. Football’s key stakeholders, including UEFA, national associations and leagues, and members of the European Parliament, Commission and Council, were all represented at the event. Members of the growing European network of organised supporters’ groups working towards greater levels of involvement in the decision-making process and ownership structures of their clubs were also present.
In many ways, the launch of the position paper, which is now available online, represents the culmination of the first phase of a project that began with José Luís Arnaut’s Independent European Sports Review, published in 2006. A key recommendation of that report was aimed at European football’s governing bodies: “to examine the feasibility of a European Supporters Direct body.”
This task was taken up by UEFA, who commissioned Supporters Direct to undertake an extensive research study. The result was a 2009 paper, ‘What is the Feasibility of a Supporters Direct Europe?’ which examined “the feasibility of extending the work undertaken by Supporters direct within the UK across the remainder of UEFA’s members associations.” The study’s findings were naturally conditioned by the socio-political and legal environment in each individual country, but one over-arching fact was clear: “there are many fan groups who understand the benefits of becoming formally involved in governing their clubs and looked to the trust model in the UK as a source of inspiration. The stage of development of these groups is conditioned by the legal and cultural factors present, but they all have needs which could be addressed through the services of a Supporters Direct Europe.”
The feasibility study, which began in 2007 and concluded with the publication of the paper in 2009, not only identified that there were organised groups of supporters across the continent who wished to become involved in the ownership and governance of their clubs, but also that there were practical ways in which an SD Europe could assist them in achieving their aims.
Our work – grassroots
Since then, SD Europe has provided services, contributed to the raising of awareness, disseminated information relating to good practice and raised standards among supporters’ groups, helping to create partners in dialogue. It has been recognised by UEFA and other stakeholders for the key role it can play in fostering improved governance not only amongst supporters’ groups, but also at clubs, leagues, and national associations. We believe that sport will be improved through the increased involvement of supporters in governance and decision-making – and that this will also deliver wider social and economic benefits. We also believe that the mutual or co-operative business structure and accompanying financial model is the most appropriate for sport as it balances cultural, sporting and economic dimensions.
Currently, SD Europe is active in around 20 European countries, the results of which have been felt both at the grassroots and governing levels of the game. In countries such as Ireland and Italy, we have fostered the development of national networks of organised supporters’ groups, many of whom have taken ownership of their clubs (Friends of the Rebel Army Society – Cork City FC), gained representation on club boards (Fondazione Taras – Taranto FC 1927) or acquired ‘golden shares’ with representation and veto rights attached to them (Sosteniamolancona – US Ancona 1905).
In other countries, such as Germany and Sweden, SD Europe has assisted organised national groups in confronting challenges to the members’ association model of club ownership. SD Europe imposes criteria of inclusivity, accountability, transparency, anti-discrimination and democracy on the groups we work with – all with the key aims of promoting good governance and supporter ownership. Although each European nation has a distinct and vibrant football culture, it is our experience that the concept of a collective voice for supporters has currency, regardless of the circumstances.
Our work – governance
On the governing level, Article 35 of UEFA’s Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, which outlined the requirement for all clubs participating in UEFA competitions to appoint a Supporter Liaison Officer before the start of the 2012/13 season is a result of talks between SD Europe and UEFA. We are also active in promoting UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations and national licensing systems in countries such as Germany and Sweden, and believe that football’s decision-making structures need to be improved to encourage long term sustainability. Current governance frameworks disadvantage clubs that operate sustainable, long-term financial policies.
Arguably the most important tenet of our work is concerned with building capacity for organised supporters’ groups across Europe. The 2007 White Paper on Sport, 2011 Communication on Sport and the European Parliament vote on the FISAS Report outlined the need to encourage good governance and financial sustainability across sport, and football in particular. SD Europe has also been active in this area, delivering a position paper on the implementation of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union in Sport to the Directorate General for Education and Culture at the European Commission in June 2010.
As a result of this preparatory work, in 2011 SD Europe was awarded a grant under the European Commission’s Preparatory Action in the Field of Sport, and is currently coordinating a project, ‘Improving Football Governance through Supporter Involvement and Community Ownership’, which involves nine partners from across the continent. As well as strengthening the network of supporter ownership in Europe through the identification and sharing of best practice and lessons learnt, partners will undertake the production of a ‘toolkit’ for their country, in its native language. These documents will provide a key resource for supporters’ trusts/groups and mutually owned clubs in the future.
Several partners will also hold national workshops aimed at their members and training in areas such as setting up democratic fans organisations, fundraising, community work, membership and legal frameworks, but also how to build capacity, lobby and raise awareness amongst stakeholders and develop a long-term vision for good governance in football in each country and beyond.
The heart of the game
In order to complement our work at grassroots and governance level, SD Europe has also produced ‘The Heart of the Game’, which sets out our key policy positions and also provides evidence of how supporter involvement and ownership can help improve European football. It covers six core areas: Improving Governance, Improving Financial Sustainability, Improving the Social Function of Sport, Improving Transfer Operations, Improving the Fight against Match Fixing, and Reducing Discrimination and violence. Key recommendations include: a revival of the members’ association model of club ownership, expansion of existing national networks of organised supporters’ groups, and the implementation of club licensing and financial fair play-type rules in all European leagues. The paper is currently available online in full and in summary, and will serve as a blueprint for our work over the coming seasons.
Supporter ownership of football clubs is not something strange, or new, or confined to the margins of European football. It is embedded in its history and the current fabric of the game. Almost all football clubs began their life as associations of people wanting to participate in football and organise collectively. In many countries, member ownership of clubs was the norm until very recently.
Supporter ownership and involvement is important because football supporters are the lifeblood of the game – economically, culturally and socially. Supporters more than any other stakeholder group make lifelong commitments to their clubs and invest in them (economically, emotionally, and with time) on a long-term basis.
However, supporter ownership, and broader supporter involvement in decision-making in football, has never been under more pressure. The dominance of commercial/corporate models of governance has seen supporter ownership and involvement under threat in several countries; even where it is firmly embedded and regulated there are pressures to relax such rules; and even where clubs are successfully run as supporter owned entities, they have to operate in an often-hostile environment. SD Europe’s task is to ensure that the network of organised supporters’ groups continues to develop, and that supporters are installed (or remain) at the heart of the game.