Transformed governance structures and stakeholder empowerment 


A traditional form of governance

Football as an issue of European policy-making

As football touches a very large part of the European population, it is not surprising that in recent years EU policy-makers have become interested in the governance structures of this game, which is both a social practice and a significant economic activity. Football-related decisions of EU institutions are now numerous. They extend from the 1976 Dona ruling and, most significantly, the 1995 Bosman ruling of the European Court of Justice to the 2007 Parliament Report on the Future of Professional Football or the European Commission White Paper on Sport. Until the December 2009 coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU had no direct competence in the field of sport, but the policies of the EU were clearly felt by those involved in the governance of football.

There is a general academic consensus that the transformation of European football’s governance is underpinned by a constant tension between, on the one hand, the most commercialised and professionalised part of European football (which target is to maximise economic profits) and, on the other hand, a more socio-cultural view stressing the educational and social values of football.

EU institutions cannot be considered to be directly responsible for the emergence of new governance structures in European football. However, the effect of European integration has been felt on the daily life of those involved in football. EU institutions have been used by dissatisfied stakeholders (such as clubs, players and, most importantly for the FREE research project, supporters) as alternative policy venues to settle disputes with the governing bodies that could not be resolved within the internal governance structures of football. This has undermined the vertical channels of authority featured in the traditional pyramid of European football. Conceptually, the EU impact has facilitated a transition to structures of network governance. Some concrete examples would be UEFA’s creation of the ‘Professional Football Strategy Council’, or the development of ‘Football Supporters Europe’, a transnational network of supporters’ organisations across the continent.

The ‘Governance’ strand of the FREE project focuses on some of the consequences of European integration for the governance of football. In line with the ethnographic and anthropological nature of the project, the focus is not on the institutions, the structures or the committees, but on the most fundamental member of the football community: the supporter.

Concepts of governance

The term governance is used in many contexts and with different meanings. Yet, there are two main elements that have a clear application to football:

  • governance as a network to structure the relationships among a large number of stakeholders; and
  • governance as ‘good governance’, which is defined as involving the principles of effective, transparent and democratic management.

Both these definitions of governance can be seen as both analytical (or descriptive) and normative. Applied to sport, this means that we can use them to analyse how football is governed structurally and to comment on how well it is or should be governed.

In the case of European football, governance as an analysis of power and authority structures comprises three important elements:

  • a network structure;
  • the role of non-governmental organisations with a degree of self-regulation (federations, clubs, leagues, supporters organisations);
  • the participation of public authorities (in our case, the focus is on the European Union) in the networks.

As for the notion of ‘good governance’ with regard to football, the necessity to observe good governance principles is applied to governing bodies and their policies, but it is also applicable to other levels, such as clubs in their management of economic and human resources.

The European Model of Sport

The European Model of Sport is a contested concept. Although it was first defined by the European Commission, the concept seems to have taken a life of its own and it has been used by many stakeholders involved in EU sports policy. As a result, there are different understandings of what the European Model of Sport is. There is even a debate as to whether such a single model really exists.

In 1998, the Commission prepared a consultation document that introduced the concept of a European ‘Model’ of Sport. According to this document, the European Model of Sport is characterised by a multi-level, pyramidal and hierarchical structure of governance that runs from the international federations down to the national federations and the clubs. Furthermore, sport in Europe is characterised by a grassroots approach and a system of promotion and relegation, which implies a close link between the professional and amateur levels in sport. The Commission also acknowledges that sport has a strong social component, particularly when it comes to identity and social inclusion.

In the 2007 White Paper on Sport, the European Commission, however, recognised the transformations in sport governance and had to clarify ‘that it is unrealistic to try to define a unified model of organisation of sport in Europe’, taking note of the fact that ‘the emergence of new stakeholders (participants outside the organised disciplines, professional sports clubs, etc.) is posing new questions as regards governance, democracy and representation of interests within the sport movement’. Among these stakeholders, the supporters are of greater interest to the FREE project.

Supporters and football governance: filling the gap

For football supporters, the evolution of the game’s governance creates a complicated scenario. On the one hand, they might now find new opportunities to engage with governance structures and to try and influence the way in which the game is regulated and managed. On the other hand, the commercialisation of football might be also endangering some of the socio-cultural values of football most cherished by supporters.

Until today, academic studies on the consequences of EU policies on football have focused mostly on the institutional level, analysing how EU decisions have impacted the policies and strategies of governing bodies and stakeholders. A large amount of literature is devoted to analysing the application of EU law to the activities and policies of football organisations. Political scientists, on the other hand, have attempted to theorise the emergence of an EU sport policy. Together with academics interested in management and governance, they have also studied the effects of EU policies on governance structures, but mostly remaining at the structural and organisational level.

The empowerment of supporters, however, is a much more recent phenomenon and consequently much less explored. In the FREE project, research on governance attempts to fill this gap, by focusing on the consequences of EU integration for football governance through the prism of fans. By going down to the level of the individual and his/her day-to-day relation with football, the project also intends to fill a methodological gap.


In addition to its input into the quantitative surveys carried out under the responsibility of the Public Sphere research strand based on a systematic review of the academic literature on football governance, the Governance research strand attempts, with the help of qualitative, anthropological field work methods, to gain better insight into individual experiences and meanings of what being a supporter entails in everyday life, and the extent to which engaging in governance structures is part of that meaning.

In studying the ‘institutionalised minority’ of organised football supporters, this research strand will combine qualitative methods such as qualitative semi-structured focus interviews and participant observation with some additional mobile and user-led field work methods:

  • auto-photography, which involves turning the camera over to participants to document the images or footage they choose as they move within and across social spaces and places. This method enables researchers to view the participant’s world through their eyes, helps to erase the traditional power imbalance between researcher and participant and elicit meaningful data in ‘seeable’ ways that extend beyond the ‘sayable’;
  • audio-diaries, which is a participant-led method that consists in digitally recording one’s own thoughts on a particular topic, capturing the dynamic process of fan involvement and identity construction over time, and providing insight into experiences of diversity and commonality relative to football, and ensuring that the research remains relevant to the people and user-groups at which it is aimed;
  • the study of internet football forums/weblogs, which represent a precious source for low-cost collection of authentic data. With the advice of the project’s scientific advisory board and the collaboration of ‘Football Supporters Europe’ and ‘Supporters Direct’ (two civil society organisations which are involved in this project), the research team will define five ‘hot topics’. The data gathered in the Internet forums will then be analysed through traditional content and discourse analysis with relevant software.

Summary of research objectives

  • to explore, by means of innovative empirical field work, the perceptions, attitudes and opinions held within the population of supporters’ networks on a distinctly European level and thus produce policy-relevant new findings on attitudes and opinions on the governance structures of European football;
  • to ascertain whether there is a demand by supporters/fans for regulation of football governance structures in order to preserve the more socio-cultural values of the game, as defined in the European Model of Sport;
  • to investigate the extent to which football supporters consider EU institutions a suitable regulator of football governance structures, in a general environment of Euroscepticism in the continent;
  • to investigate the extent to which football supporters/fans feel empowered (or not) by the governance structures of the game at local, national and European level;
  • to investigate the nature and the characteristics of the emergence of transnational European networks of football supporters.