Fan clubs

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. Jack Atkins donned his scarf and found out more about community ran football...
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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.

Photography: James Boyes

Read more of this feature in Ethos issue 04 –