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An ‘alternative’ celebration of the power of passion

As UEFA announced last week, Warsaw-based ASK Zly recently won the UEFA Best Grass Roots Club Award for 2019.

The football club is a member of SD Europe and prides itself on being the first democratically ran, fan-owned football club in Poland. More than 1,000 people of Warsaw celebrated this success in last Sunday’s double match and SD Europe was there to share these moments of happiness with the contributors of this award.

SD Europe headed to Warsaw this weekend to unearth more about the football club and why it has gained recognition from UEFA.

The ‘AKS’ is an acronym that translates as ‘alternative sports club’, whilst ‘Zly’ takes influence from a novel of the same name by Polish author Leopold Tyrmand about a hero who protects the citizens of Warsaw. A very fitting name for a club that patrons inclusion, equality, civility and democracy as its driving principles.

Upon arriving at the Don Pedro Arena an hour before the game, it was immediately apparent the matchday experience in Zly is like no other. On the opposite side of the stadium to the entrance loomed the seemingly abandoned early 20th century, brown-bricked industrial building, which, along with the Warsaw flat caps, has become an informal symbol of Zly. Greeted by two supporters who had volunteered to take care of ticketing that day, there was a friendly and comfortable atmosphere. A band was setting up a stage area in the middle of the terracing down the side of the pitch which performed during the half-time of each match.

Around 400 people were present for the women’s team match which was to kick-off at 3pm, to be followed by the men’s team kicking-off at 5pm. A clear demonstration of the club’s commitment to equality by exhibiting both teams on the same day. Showcasing both fixtures together seemingly attracted a more diverse crowd, with a seemingly even mix of all ages, men, women and families present.

AKS Zly’s commitment to inclusivity was on show in the form of a childrens’ amputee football match taking place on the pitch before the womens’ match. AKS Zly and ‘Amp Futbol Polska’ are both members of two different UEFA Social Responsibility Partners: SD Europe and the Amputee Football Federation. The aim of the amputee exhibition matches is to raise greater awareness of the disability sport whilst also giving the young players the opportunity to play in front of a crowd.

The club upholds the value of civility, strong or aggressive language is banned from its matches. This is no doubt a significant factor to why so many families with young kids were present. A group of some 30 Zly fans, armed with a drum, scarves and flags adorned with the club’s colours, congregated in the middle of one terrace to the side of the pitch forming an informal singing section, creating a festival feel to the afternoon which all in attendance seemed to partake in and enjoy.

This accompanied with the traditional Polish band playing music during both half-times, and after the game, made a very inviting environment to watch a few football matches. The club says it does all this because it wants to create an environment where anyone can feel welcome and safe watching football.

Speaking to supporters, there was a tangible sense of ownership and belonging to Zly, most inspiring of all, despite winning this prestigious award from UEFA, supporters were very humble and insisted there was still work for the club to do. AKS Zly has aspirations to branch out into other sports to give more people in its community the opportunity to partake in sport. In addition to its men’s and women’s football teams, they have also founded a women’s basketball team. In the long term, the club is committed to finding a permanent home to cement its place in the community. Their current stadium is leased and shared with other football clubs.

Speaking to the football club’s Chairwoman, Karolina Szumska, she described how they hope this award will be a launch pad for the club to continue growing, whilst keeping its values central to all of its activities. Karolina also spoke about the importance of fan-ownership in the club achievements, stating that they think it is crucial to ensure the club sustains long term and does not deviate from its founding principles.

Chairwoman of @AksZly, Karolina Szumska, talking about the importance of being a fan-owned club ⚽👥 #PassionHasPower#UEFAgrassroots @UEFA @pzpn_pl @PZPNGrassroots@Pippoevai @FASFEaficion @markdoidge — SD Europe (@SDEurope07) October 2, 2019

SD Europe’s Loukas Anastasiadis said: “This is one of the brightest moments in SD Europe’s history; a victory also for our network. The way AKS Zly are bringing communities together through sport in a democratic setting, and against their internal and external challenges is admirable. They should be a social role model for other clubs and fans in Poland (and Europe), but also acknowledge their responsibility to more actively work with others to bring them closer to democracy”.

AKS Zly are a testament to what can be achieved when supporters are in the driving seat of their football clubs. Considering the club only formed in 2015, the milestones reached should stand as inspiration for fan-owned clubs across the continent. AKS Zly set a strong example for football and society to follow.

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