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. Liverpool-based Jack Atkins donned his scarf to find out more about community-run football…

Photo: German Parga – FC Barcelona.

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 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.

Non-League side Lewes offers equal pay to men’s and women’s teams

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.

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 Supporters 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 Direct 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.

Bill Shankly statue | Photo: cchana/Flickr

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-run 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.

Lewes FC Ladies | Photo: James Boyes

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.

This is what a hipster flag looks like

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.

We heard rum and football don’t mix

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 22 December.

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 €80 mark to the €640 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.”

Virgin Media to subsidise all Premier League away tickets to £20Fans 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 (€23), whereas some teams in the Premier League charging anything up to £70 (€80). 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, and not without controversy, FC Barcelona has accepted sponsorship, but that’s not to say that community run football clubs are not the way forward. For now they 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.

(The writer of this piece has 50 pairs of trainers. Just sayin’)

This feature was adapted from a piece by Liverpool-based writer Jack Atkins for Ethos Magazine.  Read their interview with Atlas co-founder Cathy Runciman here