PtG Article 11.03.2009

Fans take stake in their team

UK-based football fans group Supporters Direct (SD) is setting up a European-wide network of football fans seeking to take ownership of their clubs with the backing of the sports’ governing body, UEFA.

Backed by the country’s Labour government, SD helps fans organise mutual groups - or trusts - and is already working with organised groups in 13 European countries.

“We’re trying to set up a structure to help everyone and UEFA’s been really supportive,” says Antonia Hagemann. “We’re active in 13 countries and our main aim is to support those groups as best we can. It fits in with what [UEFA president Michel] Platini is looking at across Europe.”

A 2006 review of European sport by Portuguese politician José Arnaut advocated greater fan involvement and Platini backed this by funding an SD report into rolling out the fan-ownership concept across Europe as an antidote to the increasing influence of big business in the sport.

The report, which Ms Hagemann project managed, has just been released after visits to 46 countries and SD plans to invite comments on the report to help unite supporters across Europe.

“We want to do that so it’s not dated,” adds Ms Hagemann. “Some people might have issues with the report but at last it’s out there and it’s a start.”SD is working with Spanish supporters group Fasfe and fan groups in the Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden and Italy, where the owner of Modena is sympathetic regarding a possible takeover of the Serie B strugglers by a supporters’ group.

A partner at international law firm Cleary Gottleib is sympathetic to SD’s aims and the practice has agreed to advise fans on issues such as legal structures but will not represent supporters in court.

SD is cautious about using the term ‘trust’ outside the UK as establishing a mutual, where one member gets one vote regardless of how much money they put in, is not possible in every country in Europe for a variety of reasons from culture to money.

When Swiss second division team Winterthur ran into financial problems, fans raised money to save the side and one supporter, Andreas Moesli, runs the club but no mutual model evolved.

“There are still no supporters [at FC Winterthur] but the usual old men as almost everywhere,” explains Swiss football journalist Pascal Claude. “There are some rare exceptions. [At] FC Zurich, a supporter was elected to the board but he’s not an official representative of a supporters’ trust but of a rather undefined group of official fanclubs (ultras).”

Weak currency and a less developed football ‘industry’ also present an obstacle in some countries where SD is active, such as Israel.Disgruntled Hapoel Jerusalem fans set up their own club after being blocked in attempts to buy or take a stake in their team, which was relegated to the Israeli third division last year.

Named Katamon FC after the ground where Hapoel used to play, the club started last year and was inspired by fans of English teams Liverpool, Manchester United and Wimbledon, who set up new teams outside the Football League using the SD’s trust model.

In Israel, using the same model did not prove possible. As recently as the 1970s, Hapoel were Israel’s biggest club with crowds of 15,000 but support had dwindled to a few hundred by last year, when Katomon FC was set up.

The new team gets 3,000 to 4,000 fans for matches in the Israeli fourth division but needs outside help.

“There is no possibility that an Israeli club would just be owned by fans, “says Yonatan Cohen, a sports commentator for Israeli TV channel Sport 5, who helped set up Katomon FC. “So we created our own idea from a mix of fans and businessman and the fans have the last word.

“For 1,000 Israeli shekels (€0.19), we sold fans a season ticket for a year and an option that gives them a vote on the issues at the club. On our board, we have four fans and three businessmen and that option allows you to vote on the four supporters that go to sit on the board.”

Cohen admits that what the fans behind Katomon FC lacked was experience in owning a club and that is where SD wants to step in.

“There’s not even one model of fan culture, there’s several,” adds Ms Hagemann. “Fan culture is an alien concept to a lot of countries.”

European Sports Review - http://www.independentfootballreview.comFASFE - http://www.fasfe.orgFC Winterthur - http://www.fcwinterthur.chFC Zurich - Cleary - http://www.cgsh.comKatamon FC - FC -'UEFA to meet supporters groups’ - is the Feasibility of a Supporters Direct Europe? (full report) -