Football is the biggest sport in the world with an estimated 3.5 billion fans, but as the average fan is being increasingly priced out and disregarded, several football teams are striving to do things their way.
If boxing is the ‘sport of kings’, then football is ‘the working-class sport’, well, at least it used to be. Fuelled in part by changes in media technology and the realisation of the importance of overseas markets, football has been plucked out of the hands of the ordinary match-goer and increasingly used as anything from a media bargaining chip, to an oligarch’s plaything.
Some teams, however, have remained true to football’s origins and have remained a fundamental part of their community, rather than becoming a bastardised soulless cash cow only existing to serve the whims of their owners.
As the ordinary fan is increasingly becoming priced out of most flights of professional football, more clubs are adopting a community owned model, ensuring that the fans are the ones making the decisions off the pitch and making sure that decisions benefit the clubs and the fans rather than benefitting a faceless fat cat.
FC Barcelona are easily the most successful example of this practice, a proud focal point of the Catalan region with a storied history, multiple honours and strong financial and commercial appeal — the perfect trifecta for a football team. To many, what Barcelona represents is in stark contrast to main rivals Real Madrid; the team of the people against the team of patriarchy; a hard-working ideology versus opulence and obscene wealth.
Despite its image, FC Barcelona is a revenue machine, valued at over $3.56 billion and pulling in an annual turnover of over €560.8 million. These figures make it the second most valuable sports team in the world and the second richest football team in the world, respectively; and yet it is owned by over 140,000 ‘socis’ — the term for the members of Barcelona FC’s registered association.
The mix of its heritage, football style and governance has made Barcelona one of the most admired football clubs in the world, and has influenced countless individuals in the world of football and beyond. One person influenced is the director of the Community Shares Company (CSC), Dave Boyle. The CSC is an organisation established to allow communities to raise funds to buy stakes in companies or causes that hold a place close to their hearts; everything from taking over freeholds on historic local pubs, to seizing control of football teams mismanaged by greedy venture capitalists and bumbling chairmen. Before directing the CSC, Boyle was also a founding member of Supporter’s Direct, which worked exclusively in helping secure community ownership for football teams, and helped with the formation of football clubs such as AFC Wimbledon.
“I worked with Supporter’s trust for the first ten years of its existence. Our organisation definitely took Barcelona as an inspiration and tried to create more opportunities for clubs in the UK to emulate the Barcelona style set-up.”
Boyle continues: “When we started Supporters Direct it was based on an idea of ‘how do we change things in football?’ There’s been people trying to get the FA and the Premier League to do things better and differently for, well to be perfectly frank, 40 years and it has gotten us precisely fucking nowhere. So, if we want to be involved in the decision making, in the absence of the government of the day making it incumbent upon the people who run football to listen to their fans, the only way we get on the inside is to basically become the owners of clubs.”
Despite its mass fan-base, football in the UK has, at times, run parallel to politics, for better and for worse. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government of the 1980s saw football fans as ‘the enemy within’ and aimed to dehumanise football fans. Whereas this year, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hinged his election campaign on winning the support and trust of the ‘common match-goer’; it’s finally clicked with government that football fans are as passionate and vocal about politics as they are about bad defending and net-bursting free kicks.
“The socialism I believe in, is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life,” eschewed the legendary Bill Shankly while at the top of the football world with Liverpool FC in the 1960s and 70s.
The merging of politics and football is nothing new, but its prominence in the modern game fluctuates at various times. Political fluctuations within football could be down to cultural differences, with various nations having different ideas and styles, both on and off the pitch. Boyle sees it differently, especially in a post-globalisation world. “The people who we were working with were essentially the people who had been banging the drum for about 15 years from the 1980s and 90s onwards, then a new generation started to come through towards the end of the 2000s, they were different; they were a post-Premier League generation.”
Boyle continues, “these people have grown up and taken inspiration from places like Italy more than we did. You look at their magazines and see a definite sense of ‘it’s possible to have good politics and good trainers’ whereas our generation of fans were a little more ‘fuck the trainers what about the politics?’ So, they were very much coming to the fore and it was taking it in, not a new direction, but it was definitely a new generation and a new generation’s ideas coming through.”
Barcelona has recently been split down the middle regarding Catalan independence, a region that has seen itself as independent of Spain in many ways for a long time now. The region’s political and social views are often carried over into the Nou Camp, albeit unofficially — it is a regular occurrence to see banners in Barcelona’s stadium proclaiming such things as ‘Catalonia is not Spain,’ while players throughout history from legendary captain Carles Puyol to current defender Gerard Pique have stated their passion and love for Catalonia, the former once stating that “FC Barcelona is the national team of Catalonia,” whereas the latter recently threatened to quit the Spanish national side if his support for Catalan independence was seen as problematic.
The idea of a football team righting wrongs and striving for what is perceived as good is becoming an increasingly international affair, one that is sparking the imaginations of thousands of football fans. In the UK, you have East Sussex’s Lewes FC, a community ran football club with over 1200 owners, spread across 25 different countries which, in July, became the first football team in the world to pay its male and female first teams equally. Chief executive and commercial manager, Kevin Miller, is very proud of this first; “this means that from the start of this 2017/18 season, the playing budgets of both teams will be the same throughout the season,” and that doing things differently is just the Lewes way. “We are part of a town known for its fierce independence. There’s a groundswell of community ideals here in Lewes; just put Lewes Bonfire into YouTube and you’ll see what I mean!”
Boyle agrees, having worked with closely with Lewes FC in the past. “It’s the first club I’ve seen which has managed to decouple the idea of the club being successful, from the idea of the club being community owned. What success looks like to Lewes is not just a great season on the pitch that leads to promotion, of course that’s important, but it’s not the only thing that matters.”
This move couldn’t come at a better time, with the rise in popularity of women’s football across the globe, coupled with the ongoing issue of unfair pay in sports. It doesn’t matter that Lewes isn’t the biggest football team on the planet, but the fact that its doing things its own way and causing ripples within the global soccer community, speaks volumes.
These ripples have already started to grow into something bigger, with the recent announcement that the Norwegian Football Association has followed in Lewes footsteps, becoming the first and, so far, only governing body in world football to award its national men’s and women’s teams equal pay. Norwegian players’ union boss Joachim Walltin spoke of the landmark gesture, “Norway is a country where equal standing is very important for us, so I think it is good for the country and for the sport.”
The fact it has taken this long for fairly-ran football to become part of the agenda again in the UK is frankly absurd. Despite being lauded as the spiritual home of the sport, the fact that the UK is light years behind most of Europe in terms of how the game is run is embarrassing. You only have to look at Germany, where football has managed to satisfy all parties, generating healthy revenues for clubs while respecting and valuing fans proving it is possible to make vast amounts of money from the sport without abusing your power.
The poster-child for the German model is FC St. Pauli in Hamburg, celebrated world-over by football fanatics for its blend of politics and football and often regarded as the team of choice for the ‘football hipster’ crowd due to its adoption of the Jolly Roger and its progressive values.
In 2009, St Pauli became the first team in Germany to adopt a set of guiding principles which somewhat serve as a manifesto for how the club is run and what it believes in, whilst ‘forming an integral part of contracts and agreements in future and serve as a reference point for everyone involved with the club’. What is most impressive about these principles is that the first five are all to the do with the club’s responsibility to the supporters and community, while also promoting tolerance, respect, and fair sportsmanship.
FC St. Pauli also outlines that ‘[it] shall lobby the respective governing bodies for the early scheduling of fixtures and supporter-friendly kick-off times’, something that urgently needs to be addressed in England. There was outrage recently when the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky TV proposed moving Arsenal’s game at home to Liverpool to Christmas Eve, not taking into account that it is the busiest travel day of the year with potential travelling Liverpool fans facing the prospect of outrageous travel fees and the reality that they could be stranded in London for Christmas. The proposed move was met with condemnation from supporters and football clubs alike, with Arsenal ground staff refusing to work if the game went ahead. Sky eventually backed down, scheduling the match instead for December 22nd.
A good majority of English football fans gaze longingly at how the sport is managed and run in Germany, where over-policing and strict regulations are replaced by a more relaxed attitude, where fans are treated fairly as humans rather than as ‘customers’. The biggest team in Germany, Bayern Munich, offers season tickets ranging from the £70 mark to the £560 mark, whereas a team such as Sunderland in England’s second tier league offer similar pricing for season tickets, for football which is arguably less dynamic and exciting, with players earning far less than their counterparts at the summit of Germany’s Bundesliga.
It’s obvious that something needs to change, but unfortunately for Dave Boyle, he doesn’t see a mass shift to community-owned models coming to the English game any time soon. “I don’t see people thinking that there is a better way, and the trouble is that until many clubs are run in this way it will be impossible. Say if you get a German situation where all but three clubs are essentially owned and ran by their communities, then of course it makes sense and why would you change it? How do you get to that change where it doesn’t become an impediment to be run by your community? The answer is that actually there is a decent chance of you becoming successful on the field without having a sugar daddy as your owner.”
It’s even worse for fans of the Premier League as England’s top-flight football is such a hot commodity for global merchandising and broadcasting, with the afore-mentioned Rupert Murdoch and his Sky broadcasting group having a particularly strong influence on everything, from the previously noted approach to match scheduling to financial incentives for teams playing at the pinnacle of English football.
“I think unless Sky went bust and there was no money in the Premier League and more teams started to go belly up one after another, then that would be the point that most people would go: ‘You know what this is bonkers, the way we’ve been doing things is absolutely stupid and we need to change it,’” says Boyle.
Fans are starting to fight back though, through mass protests and walk-outs such as the ‘Twenty is Plenty’ campaign, aimed at capping tickets for away fans at £20, whereas some teams in the Premier League charging anything up to £70. Across the country, teams are springing up left and right as an ‘antidote’ to the seemingly ‘soul-less’ Premier League, with teams such as FC United of Manchester specifically formed as a protest against the massive Premiership sides in their city that prioritise profits over fraternity.
“With being the bosses [of community clubs] we get to be able to indicate that it is possible to do things differently. It’s possible to run a club and charge fair prices to away fans and treat away fans well, and it’s possible to not prostitute oneself to the TV companies over kick-off times, have safe standing, all these things which people have been talking about for years,” says Boyle.
Interestingly, FC Barcelona is slowly starting to closely resemble Real Madrid than it does FC St. Pauli or Lewes FC. Famously avoiding shirt sponsorship until reaching an agreement with UNICEF in 2011 (a high-profile move that was lauded by fans and commenters alike) Barça then swapped this for shirt sponsorship from another non-profit in the form of the Qatar Foundation, before giving in to the trappings of the modern game and accepting sponsorship from Qatari Airways, and more recently Japanese conglomerate Rakuten.
Where once it promoted wave after wave of players from its youth system, it is now no stranger to bidding eye-watering amounts of money for players, seemingly on a whim, and in October it was revealed that Barça are to rename its historic Camp Nou stadium to the Camp Nou Grifols, after finalising a 30-year deal with the pharmaceutical giant Grifols. The adage goes ‘you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain’, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that Barcelona is slowly losing its identity.
Even though FC Barcelona is seemingly changing for the worse, that’s not to say that community ran football is not the way forward. For now, community-run clubs are the minority, but with fans becoming more and more disgruntled and betrayed by the workings of modern football, it could only be a matter of time before the minority become the majority. Let’s just hope that if change comes, it comes for the right reasons.
Originally published at ethos-magazine.com.