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November 30, 2012
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Brussels launch of Supporters Direct Europe (SDE) position paper on football governance. The event was organised in the premises of the European Parliament and hosted by the prominent centre-right Belgian MEP Ivo Belet. The turnout of the event is testimony to the work that Supporters Direct Europe has done over the last five years. Congratulations are certainly in order to Antonia Hagemann, the bright, efficient and hard working mind behind SDE. Most of the speakers reminded that five years ago, in the same building, the launch of SDE as an organisation only managed to attract a handful of persons. The work of Supporters Direct and other sister organisations such as Football Supporters Europe (FSE) have established the supporters as recognised stakeholders in football governance. Perhaps the latest and definitive endorsement was the award by the European Commission of several projects under the preparatory actions in the area of sport to networks of supporters organisations. They are also a recognised observer in the Council’s expert group on governance.
So this is now a reality. The supporters are here to stay. This position paper is actually an act of self-confidence. In a way, one could even talk of a little bit of cockiness. In the position paper, which is extremely interesting, SDE now speaks with confidence on issues that do not necessarily pertain to their most direct remit. Take third party ownership of players as an example. Undoubtedly fans have an opinion, although it is not directly related to their football experience. Yet, SDE is now a confident organisation that dares to voice its opinion. The paper, as a whole, deserves attentive reading, and I will invite everyone to make the most of its content. There is a very persuasive case for the involvement of supporters in football governance. There is also a good case for the need of more research into the social benefits of sport. In that respect, the position paper clearly mirrors the European Commission call or more research and evidence to inform EU sports policy since the White Paper. As academics, we have a responsibility to contribute.
With greater power normally comes greater responsibility. And some pertinent questions about SDE need also to be raised. As Antonia Hagemann and her colleague Daniela Wurbs (of FSE) know too well, I like to put forward challenging questions to football stakeholders, including the supporters. I believe that it is our responsibility as academics to ensure these questions are answered, for they are fundamental to a knowledge-based sports policy. We, as academics, have a social responsibility to contribute to the accountability of actors in public governance structures. Although the Premier League would argue football is not public, but a private business, I would beg to differ.
So, whilst SDE received nothing but praise during the Brussels event, I have some questions for them. Supporters organisations benefit from what it is normally conceptualised as an ‘irresistible message’ in political science. It is very difficult to argue against the supporters’ discourse because it is very fashionable and it appeals to positive values. However, what is the legitimacy of an organisation such as SDE? Who do they really represent? Who are ‘the supporters’ they speak on behalf of? For example, have they done a survey to argue that supporters consider third party ownership as a negative thing? Is supporter involvement in club governance always positive? In Argentina one could argue that supporters detent too much power.
On a more general note, SDE is a UEFA-funded spill over of Supporters Direct. The latter is a very Anglo-centric model. Which is the membership of SD and SDE? These are questions that address core issues relating to the legitimacy of SDE as a stakeholder representing ‘the supporters’, whoever they are. And these are questions that sooner or later the bright minds of Antonia Hagemann, Daniela Wurbs, Emilio Abejón or David Lampitt would have to answer.
If you have managed to read to the end of this blog post, let me finish with a word of warning, though. I think it is necessary (and honest) to reveal my personal position on this debate. I do believe that supporters need to be included in the governance of the game. I do believe football fans voices are not heard in today’s football. And I do believe that organisations such as SD, FSE or SDE are a benefit to the game. Thus, if someone tries to use my words above to argue against the work of supporters’ organisations, they will have my fierce opposition. These reflections are only put forward as a challenge to the supporter movement, so they can robustly defend their legitimacy. I am sure that, as they have done in the past, the supporters will rise to the challenge and they will convincingly argue their corner. It would be great if they do so in this blog.