In summer of 2010, supporters around the world celebrated football at the top level. From Norway to New Zealand and Canada to Honduras, people were tuned in: celebrating, lamenting, discussing, and revelling in the World Cup atmosphere. All except a port city in Italy, where the owner of the local club, A.C. Ancona, had failed to meet the financial licensing criteria of Lega Serie B and abandoned the club, leaving it facing extinction.
It is no secret that financial strife is an unfortunate fact of life for clubs in many European countries. A growing number of supporters regard an understanding of the financial and management aspects of football to be as essential as grasping the offside rule.
Chronic mismanagement, lack of vision, short-term financial planning, and a growing disconnect between clubs and communities often makes it easy to forget what attracts people to the game in the first place, what makes football so special. Passion. Shared experiences and identities. A sense of belonging, ownership and collective participation. 90% of clubs never win any silverware, but that does not dampen the fervour with which their supporters follow them – football is about more than what happens over 90 minutes each weekend, or even over the course of a season. The Ancona story proves this beyond doubt. The size and significance of the crisis should not be underestimated, and for a time during that long summer it seemed that the story of the Marche region’s most historic club was set to end.
In the face of extinction and when all else failed, the Ancona tifosi realised that no one could save their club, their passion, and their ideas – except them. United under the slogan ‘passion cannot be relegated’ they formed Sosteniamolancona, a democratic organisation committed to the development of a community club with supporters at its heart. After ensuring the club’s immediate survival, their commitment persuaded local businessman Andrea Marinelli to finance the formation of a new club – U.S. Ancona 1905.
Although forced to restart from Eccellenza (at the time Italian football’s sixth tier) it was clear that Ancona’s lowly status would be temporary. With an average attendance of more than 5,000 supporters (a figure that surpassed the average of 70% of Serie B clubs in 2010/11) and the support of thousands more, Ancona began to rise again; this time not only on the pitch but also off of it, in the eyes of its supporters. During their first year in Eccellenza, Ancona won every competition they entered (the League, the Amateurs Cup, and Regional Cup) but for supporters the most important was “the fourth”: an agreement between Sosteniamolancona and the club that gave supporters the opportunity to elect two members on the club board and a ‘golden share’ agreement with key rights attached to it. These prevented changes to the club’s name, colours, crest and home stadium without the permission of Sosteniamolancona and their members.
The early successes continued, and in 2014 Ancona celebrated a return to the professional leagues. Respect towards the supporters was key to this success: during the 2013-14 season Ancona and Sosteniamolancona had agreed on the removal of barriers between the stands and the pitch and jointly introduced the Centro Relazioni con i Tifozi, a Supporter Liaison Officer-like body that ensures the Ancona supporters enjoy the best football experience both on home and away matchdays, but also during the week.
Step by step, the supporters have become the heart of the club – not just emotionally, but practically as well. David Miani, a lifelong supporter and former President of Sosteniamolancona, became Vice President and Managing Director of the club in 2015 – from the stands to the boardroom.
Crucially, the project enjoys widespread backing not just amongst the Ancona fanbase, but other stakeholders: the Regione Marche, Provincia di Ancona, and Municipio di Ancona. The club have also built partnerships within the local community – businesses, social projects and ordinary supporters are all part of a journey that shows no sign of ending yet.
Their successes have also inspired other Italian supporters to follow a similar path: in Taranto, Cava de’ Tirreni, San Benedetto del Tronto and many other proud footballing towns throughout the country, aided by Supporters in Campo (SinC), a national umbrella organisation for democratic supporters’ groups and member-run clubs. SinC was born in 2013, as part of the work undertaken during the ‘Improving Football Governance through Supporter Involvement and Community Ownership’ project, funded by the European Union and coordinated by SD Europe. Today it is an active member of SD Europe, and actively working with Italy’s Serie A, Serie B and Lega Pro to develop supporter involvement in the ownership and decision-making process at clubs.
Sosteniamolancona are, for their part, active members of SinC, and the group has many positive experiences to share, both within and outside of Italy, as part of the network of democratic supporters’ groups and clubs coordinated by SD Europe.
In November, it was announced that majority owner Andrea Marinelli would gift his shares to the Fondazione Unione Anconitana, a democratic body established by Sosteniamolancona. In just over five years, the club has emerged from a life-threatening crisis to become Italy’s first professional side to be owned and managed by its supporters – a remarkable achievement. Things aren’t going too badly on the pitch either: after nineteen rounds Ancona are 5th in the Lega Pro Girone B, with a play-off spot and promotion to Serie B the goal.
On Sunday 31 January, prior to the home match against Pisa at the Stadio Conero, the whole Ancona community will celebrate the arrival of a new era for the club, and look forward to the future. Regardless of what unfolds on the pitch, it will be an occasion where the power of supporter involvement will be clear for all to see – biancorossi, in bocca al lupo!
SD Europe is an organisation that assists democratic supporters’ groups in achieving formal structured involvement in their clubs and associations, and developing member ownership of football clubs. Established in 2007 with support from UEFA, SD Europe also advises clubs on their ownership and governance structure and works with football governing bodies, leagues, UEFA, and European institutions. Currently, it is active in over 20 European countries and is responsible for the implementation of the Supporter Liaison Officer requirement (Art. 35, UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations). For more information, contact Ben Shave (firstname.lastname@example.org / +44 7985 628 215)