Kick-off!: Fans & National Associations for a better football!

The SFSU (Swedish Football Supporters Union) and Lars-Christer Olsson from SEF (Swedish Football Leagues, European Leagues) talk about the need for fans, leagues and national associations to work together to put fans first!

The project partners and special advisors (Athlead, SchweryCade & UEFA) of SD Europe’s Kick-Off! project met for the very first time on Tuesday 9th March 2021 via an online meeting to formally begin the project and learn about a best-practice example of a successful cooperation between supporters and football governing bodies.

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“The most important thing is we talk to each other and recognise the importance of each other” – Lars-Christer Olsson, Chair of SEF & President of European Leagues

SD Europe members Swedish Football Supporters Union (SFSU) and the Swedish Professional Football Leagues (SEF), talked about the widely admired relationship between fans and governing bodies in Sweden, featuring guests Lars-Christer Olsson (SEF Chair & European Leagues President), Sofia Bohlin (SFSU Chair) and Tony Ernst (SFSU Former Chair)

What is ‘the Swedish story’?

Lars-Christer Olsson & Tony Ernst in 2013

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“You have to focus on what you can achieve together, combine the small victories, it’s easy to get stuck on the hard stuff and go nowhere. Work on the broad achievements and concentrate on how you can work together” – Sofia Bohlin, SFSU Chiar

Around 2012 Lars-Christer Olsson and Tony Ernst became the Chairs of SEF and SFSU respectively. Almost immediately, they recognised it was in the wider interest of football for the league association and the national supporters organisation to work together cooperatively. In 2013 it was agreed that SEF would fund SFSU a certain amount every year on the term that no matter the circumstances, the two organisations would always engage in dialogue.

The agreement gave supporters a voice. Over the next few years, fundamental topics were up for debate in Swedish football, including the 50+1 rule and standing areas in stadiums which were faced together. When the SFSU campaigned to retain the 50+1 rule, SEF promised to deliver on the club’s verdicts and did so, which helped to gain the trust of more traditional supporters groups and ultras. In addition, when a proposition came forward to reduce the size of standing areas in all stadiums, SEF and SFSU worked together to prevent any changes.

Of course there are still challenges, the matter of pyrotechnics is still being worked on. However, Tony Ernst stepped down as SFSU Chair in 2015 and was replaced by Sofia Bohlin who has continued to strengthen the relationship between supporters and the league to this day.

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“You have to have dialogue, even when disagreeing on everything, pragmatism, understanding that you cannot win everything you want, and trust” – Tony Ernst, SFSU Former Chair

During the panel session, Lars-Christer Olsson spoke about the most important thing in the relationship between the SEF and the SFSU being “a joint-approach to make projects for the future, not to just fix the problems of the past”, noting that “a concrete joint process is the glue” in the relationship between the supporters and the leagues.

Lars-Christer Olsson and Tony Ernst also noted the importance of managing the expectations of clubs and fans as a key element to the relationship, and the significance of building strong personal relationships and multiple contact points between organisations.

Sofia Bohlin spoke about how through consistent dialogue they broke the mould “of disagreeing, instead to look at solutions”, whilst also emphasising the importance of not relying too heavily on individuals to be the infrastructure of a relationship by adding “it is important to not make this dependent on individuals but make it between organisations”. On working together, Sofia noted that supporters organisations and football authorities need “to focus on what you can achieve together, combine the small victories, it’s easy to get stuck on the hard stuff and go nowhere. Work on the broad achievements and concentrate on how you can work together”.

Concluding, Tony Ernst offered from his perspective what is essential to have a good relationship between supporters organisations and leagues/national associations, “you have to have dialogue, even when disagreeing on everything, pragmatism, understanding that you cannot win everything you want, and trust”.

On the project meeting and panel session, SD Europe CEO Antonia Hagemann said “Kick-off! has been carefully constructed to build on the existing relationships between fans and governing bodies in several countries, respecting the different realities. But it also aims to go beyond strengthening relationships but to agree on actions!

“We would have loved to bring the project partners together in person but circumstances don’t quite allow for that yet. So instead, we decided to have an informal meeting to re-introduce the project and also to share a positive and inspiring insight into what can be achieved from constructive relationships between supporters and the football authorities.”

After the panel session, the project partners were invited to reflect on the insight shared and offer a summary of where their relationships were at the present.

Following on from last night, the next stage in the project will be to assess and review where the current relationships stand between the project partners following scientific methodologies guided by experts to identify the areas that need focusing on most.