Football democracy on the agenda as Super League plan falls into turmoil

Two co-operatively owned teams – Real Madrid and FC Barcelona – are still supporting the project but in the UK it has ignited the issue of club ownership

Issues of member democracy and governance have gatecrashed the front pages over the past week as plans by leading European football clubs to form a breakaway Super League were scuppered by an outcry from angry fans.

The controversial scheme, which also drew attacks from politicians, football associations, players and the press, involved two co-operatively owned clubs, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, alongside AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Atlético de Madrid, Chelsea FC, FC Internazionale Milano, Juventus FC, Liverpool FC, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur.

Two German clubs – Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – which are more than 50% fan owned, were invited to join but refused.

Most of the teams involved have pulled out but managers of the supporter-owned Spanish teams are still in favour of the idea. Today, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez said the plan was still “on standby” – while supporters of the club staged a protest against the Super League at the club’s Bernabeu stadium. 

Meanwhile, Barcelona supporters’ organisation Seguiment FCB responded to the plan by calling for a fan vote, in a statement which added: “We believe that obtaining the maximum consensus before the possible registration to a football Super League is not only a duty given the deep democratic roots of our club but an obligation and a sign of respect towards all the fans across Europe, given the non-existent decision-making power that, unfortunately, the fans of 10 out of the 11 other founding clubs have (in theory).”

Barcelona president Joan Laporta said today that the Super League is a “necessity”, adding: “It should be an attractive competition, based on sporting merits … We are open to an open dialogue with UEFA. I think there will be an understanding.”

But he also maintains that the club’s members will have the final say.

SD Europe, which campaigns to increase supporter involvement in the running of football clubs, was among those speaking out against the Super League.

It welcomed the news that the plan had been scrapped but warned: “There are no real winners here. The problems besetting the game – unequal financial distribution, lack of consultation with fans and players, inadequate governance, lack of solidarity – remain the same and they remain unresolved.”

Noting that many stakeholders in the game had thanked supporters for mobilising, it added: “All too often, the views of fans, along with those of players, go unheard. We are not at the table when decisions affecting the future of the game, such as the reform of the UEFA club competitions, are discussed and agreed.

“Supporters everywhere are tired of hearing the phrases ‘football without fans is nothing’ and ‘fans are not customers’. We need the football governing bodies to recognise that life has to be breathed into empty phrases like these.”

It said there is a need for “structured involvement of supporters in the governance of football clubs, national associations and leagues”. And it argued that the Super League debacle pointed to a need for “far-reaching measures to ensure financial and social solidarity through appropriate redistribution of revenue”.

It added: “The involvement of fans in decision-making has been supported by a range of stakeholders in recent discussions with SD Europe, including UEFA, the European Leagues, FIFPro, club executives, fan representatives, MEPs and the European Commission. 

“We call upon the governing bodies and clubs to enter into a discussion with the national and local supporter organisations about how the views of the game’s most important stakeholders – the players and the fans – can flow into recommendations and ultimately policies designed to shape the future of football.”

In the UK, the affair has left Boris Johnson’s Conservative government considering mechanisms for fan control, including the possibility of adopting the 50-plus-1 rule from Germany that gives fans the majority of voting rights. Tory MPs condemning the Super League include some of those supportive of co-operative ideas such as Jesse Norman, who branded it “a shambles of an idea, bad for fans, bad for competition, rotten for other clubs, rotten for the game”.

“Our fan-led review will still happen and I remain convinced of the need for reform,” said sports minister Oliver Dowden. “We must make sure this never happens again.”

This marks a Tory move onto Co-op Party turf, prompting a response from the Party’s general secretary Joe Fortune.

“We in the Co-operative Party and movement have been campaigning for fan ownership in football for over 20 years,” he wrote on the Party’s website. “I’m glad that the backlash against the European Super League has seen some new converts to the cause – but some of those conversions are more believable than others.”

He added: “When it’s time for action, this government has never been willing to truly take on the vested interests in football … Instead of genuine support for fan-owned football, the spectre of introducing a 50+1 fan ownership model like that used in Germany is being wielded by Boris Johnson as a threat, rather than a real solution to longstanding issues in the game.

“This latest scandal has finally pushed the Government to begin their promised fan-led review. But we’ve had reviews before and they haven’t been acted on.”

Mr Fortune cited the work of the Labour and Co-operative Parties in helping the effort in 20078 to set up fan ownership body Supporters Direct (which merged with the Football Supporters Federation in 2018), and their campaigns for resources to help supporters start fan ownership trusts and take over clubs.

“We developed and campaigned for the community shares model,” he added, “which is often used in supporter trusts, and we have argued for strengthened community asset legislation to more easily stop ground sales.”

He said the fan backlash against the Super League offers a “moment to push for real change”. 

“Over the past decade, both the government and the FA have failed to take action as greed paralysed the sport we all love,” he said. “It’s that inaction that allowed the owners of the Big Six to believe they’d get away with an idea as audacious as the Super League. But together, fans can prove them wrong.”

Meanwhile, Andy Burnham – Labour Co-op mayor for Greater Manchester who was involved in the foundation of Supporters Direct – joined his Liverpool counterpart Steve Rotherham to launch a five-point plan, Reclaim the Game, to prevent a repeat of the Super League incident. Along with regulatory reform this includes adopting Germany’s ’50 plus one’ rule, which would see season tickets holder balloted on any major changes to their club, and adopting the same model for ownership, giving fans at least 51% of a club’s shares. This would be done by making it law for supporters trusts to given the first option to buy any shares that become available.

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