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Returning to football: An SLO’s experience

SD Europe Head of Training and Djurgårdens IF SLO Lena Gustafson-Wiberg speaks about returning to football in Sweden.

In the first of a three-part series of interviews, we spoke to our very own Head of SLO Training, Lena Gustafson-Wiberg, who also happens to be the supporter liaison officer for Djurgårdens IF and the Swedish national team, about her experience as the Allsvenskan commences without fans present. Lena has been working as an SLO for over eight years.

In Sweden, unlike most of Europe, the football season runs through the summer months as opposed to winter. The global pandemic did delay the start of the Swedish league season, but is now underway behind closed doors. Lena shared her insight into negotiating the new challenges for football and SLOs brought about by Covid-19.

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The biggest challenge has remained the same for an SLO, to get all the stakeholders to understand each other

  1. If there are no supporters attending, why does an SLO need to be there?

“The first thing to remember, which tends to be forgotten quite often, is that as an SLO you are not only interacting with supporters, you are interacting with other stakeholders that will be present at the games. Obviously people from the football club, there may be messages that need to be conveyed or dialogue held, but also local authorities, such as police. It’s a bit different in each country, whether police are present or not at the matches, but that is one thing, so what we have done at my club is that, except for one match, we (SLOs) have attended all the pre-match meetings, as we always do, just to give the latest from our side.

Lena (right) on SLO duty for the Swedish national team

Especially away matches, but matches in general, we try to move around to where we know supporters are. If we have local supporters in a city we are playing away at, we try to go out and interact with them, and that has been a very positive thing for us as well, because normally if we bring several thousands to that city or town it might be difficult to give those supporters the attention they deserve. So we try to turn that into something positive, and I am very happy and grateful that our club shows support for the function and that they believe in it, which is shown by us still working at the matches.”

  1. How have your responsibilities changed on a matchday?

“Obviously there is less logistics. On a normal matchday, a lot of our job is logistics planning, materials that need to come into the stands, people that need to be tended to in that sense. And the same is for us as the rest of the world, our means of communication in that sense changes. Instead of face to face, we communicate even more on the phone, but also through social media and the internet. We actually do video calls with our supporters groups on occasions, so I would say that we have adapted like the rest of the world to other ways of communicating with supporters since they can’t be in the stands.

Due to the protocols in order for the clubs to play matches we need to keep staff at the stadium to a minimum, which means everyone from time to time needs to lift their job titles and do what is needed to do, so it can be anything from disinfecting things to bringing water bottles, or helping out with media, anything. It needed the club staff to come together. We have to put on a football match and do it with the absolute minimum number of people.”

  1. Will you be involved in the process to find a solution for supporters to return?

“In Sweden, I would say there are different levels of discussions and communications about this. The top conversations are between the authorities and the sports associations where the Swedish FA and leagues are represented. However, we have been having meetings with the SLO group on several occasions, and we are definitely being consulted and being heard. It’s a difficult thing, because the pandemic we are in, it is clear no one knows where it will go, and as much as we want to have the stands crowded and full again, the worry is to make mistakes. There is the health issue in all of this, for clubs, there is the financial issue. Obviously we are consulted, as SLOs, as a serious stakeholder for what that is worth.”

  1. Do you envisage any lasting effects on the role of SLOs because of the pandemic? Do you see it needing to adapt and take on new considerations?

“Since quite a lot of clubs are struggling financially, I worry that the long lasting effect is that the SLO is going to be down-prioritised. We have seen it over here unfortunately, with quite a lot of clubs having staff on furlough like my club. I am keeping my fingers crossed that if things go back to normal, that the SLOs are brought back in the capacity they used to be in as before, but I am worried, and I am worried about this across Europe. That it doesn’t get the attention, the credit, it actually deserves. The pandemic doesn’t change the fact that if you use your SLO in the right way, it is a big asset, that hasn’t changed, What we do now is that we explain different things to the supporters, the messages we bring back to the clubs and other stakeholders has obviously changed, because it is anchored down in reality and the reality we live in now is dominated by the pandemic. But still, there is a role for the SLOs to play, no doubt about it.

Our function is based on listening to people, being aware of what is going on and speaking to people. That definitely will need to analyse the change in habits and desires to see how society in general will change, if it changes. That is the foundation of our job – to be aware of what is going on everywhere. It’s a kind of impossible task but it’s our aim, we have to keep our ears firmly to the ground to see which direction the steps are going to try and be as well informed as possible. I would say that we will keep the foundation of the function, that’s rock solid, but however society changes, football will change too and we need to be aware of those changes.

  1. What has been the biggest challenge for SLOs as football returns?

“The biggest challenge has remained the same for an SLO, to get all the stakeholders to understand each other, because for supporters, a lot of supporters do not want the games to be played behind closed doors. That’s not football for them. For the clubs, it’s a matter of survival, if they don’t play, central agreements would not pay out as planned. Also, to get the authorities to understand that we can take responsibility and often football supporters can be very well organised. It is about creating a new understanding in this new environment with stakeholders. It’s important, certainly in Sweden, for supporters to understand why we need to get the season going behind closed doors. I am not happy, it is due to financial reasons. I wish we had an organisation which is sustainable enough to wait, but we have to realise that the reality is we don’t, we need to get going in order for the clubs to not go bankrupt and disappear.”

  1. Have any positives come out of this?

“I don’t know about positives, but I think it has been a wake-up call to everyone about how vulnerable football is. Even if it might not be a positive thing, it is important to realise, because that can impose change for the future, I think it’s very clear to a lot more people how strange it is to play football behind closed doors and how much the fans in the stands contribute to the actual game. The game is not only what is going on on the pitch. That has become very clear. One positive thing that has been forced out because of the pandemic that shouldn’t be considered anything less, is how supporters have come together for the clubs and each other. All sorts of initiatives have been going on. Obviously, people can’t go to matches, but instead donate that money to the clubs, there has been a lot of fundraising for the clubs. But also, in society, such as food and making protective equipment for health care workers, the people have come together through football to help society, and it has been amazing to see. What will come in the future is so difficult to predict, we all have our fingers crossed that now we move towards some kind of normality, but nobody knows, nobody knows what is in store tomorrow, or next week, or next year.”

Over the coming weeks, we will be speaking to Lena about the exciting supporter liaison officer training partnership between SD Europe and UEFA Academy in addition to an in-depth view on working as an SLO for a national team.


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