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SDE Network: AKS Zly and Socios Gornik leading the way in Poland

Polish supporters have started exploring ways to achieve increased involvement in the decision-making process in order to improve the way their football clubs are run in recent years.

Formed in 2015 (officially in April 2016) and based in Warsaw, AKS Zly is the “alternative” democratic member-run club in Poland. The motivation behind the initiative was the way Polish football is run, dominated by benefactors and sponsors, with the majority of decision makers being male and white.

Sticking to the core principles of democracy and participation, the core group behind the club followed all steps to get people involved: they developed the idea, identified their key stakeholders and gathered feedback from them, held extensive meetings with many different potentially interested parties, and then presented their work in every neighbourhood, forum and event in Warsaw. A true grassroots movement.

The club’s members made a difference right from the beginning, deciding to start a women’s team in parallel with the men’s. “Both teams are equally important, they support each other. Members and volunteers invest the same amount of time in both and in ten years we want to see both at national level,” says Kris Gorniak managing board member of AKS Zly.

The club also wanted to send a message in signing its two coaches – former Israeli youth international Antonio Shehadi and Danuta Wojciechowska, an active player of another team – that everyone is welcome at AKS Zly.

We are an amateur club but we want to operate in a professional way. We have a duty to show that democracy in football can work not just off but also on the pitch. We are two UEFA licensed coaches and the club provides all necessary equipment for us and the players,” says Shehadi.

During the process of forming and the first stages of their initial development, AKS Zly met other democratic, member-run clubs in the SD Europe network and it wasn’t long they arranged meetings and visits with them, especially throughout Germany and the UK. During those visits, AKS Zly representatives addressed issues including volunteer management (from marketing and graphic design to matchday operations), organising working groups, statutes, financing modelling and budgets, membership fees and rights, as well as registration with the Polish FA (PZPN).

When you start at the bottom level, you need to be realistic. Our priorities at the beginning were nowhere near winning the league. We had to find a ground to train and one to play in. We needed to cover the operating expenses of the team, and we needed to make our stands and our meetings as inclusive and as diverse as possible”, says Karolina Szumska President of AKS Zly. She continues: “But we have gone farther than we expected. In September 2017, just after two years of existence, we created our youth academy ‘AKS Pirates’. Sporting success is not always guaranteed but we are all delighted to see in our stands and club meetings fans of different social and cultural backgrounds, men and women, united under the roof of AKS Zly.

Today, AKS Zly are the spearhead for SD Europe in Poland. Some time earlier and somewhat to the south of the country, in Zabrze, supporters of the local club of Gornik had set up a group in 2014 with the purpose of improving the governance of democracy within their football club.

In 2016, Socios Gornik organised a conference on ‘the New Way of Supporting’ in which the different forms of supporter participation was presented. SD Europe members and friends from the network took part at the event, in which participants heard the stories of Ancona, Swansea Supporters Trust and Za Celik. Two academics, Jack Burski of the Lodz University and Dr. Artur Grabowski of the Katowice University of Economy, focused on the relationship between supporters and the management of a club as well as Germany’s 50%+1 rule.

Addressing that meeting, Polish MEP Bogdan Wenta had said: “No matter what the operational structure of the club, it is important not to forget about the social impact, as a club’s environment expands further from its staff, players and sponsors. There is a big list of sports stakeholders which includes, of course, supporters, as the club’s performance influences the local, regional and even national social and financial issues.

However, the Socios Gornik initiative was challenged significantly by the local city, which holds the majority shareholding and the administration of the club. After numerous attempts for constructive cooperation – to establish a well managed and more sustainable club and despite clear support from a big element of the fanbase – Socios Gornik have had to find an alternative way to support and get involved.

Today, the group works closely with the youth academy of Socios Gornik, committed to supporting the ‘future’ of Gornik Zabrze. The contributions of Socios Gornik members have translated into equipment and any kind of aid to the young players, down to the lowest levels. Meanwhile, Socios Gornik are still raising awareness about their cause and remain visible in many of the events organised in the city and the wider region. They also remain prepared to help then club improve its decision-making processes when the time is right.

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