Conflicts between clubs and fans are as varied as football itself. The two sides often refuse to listen to each other, preferring to seek a radical “solution” to problems instead. Helping to find common ground between the club board and supporters is a task of one of the largest supporter organisations in Europe, Supporters Direct. Together with UEFA, it has developed a project under which clubs have to appoint a specialist to work with the fans (supporter liaison officer or simply SLO). Article 35 of the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, which obliges all clubs playing in European competition, to appoint such a person, entered into force at the beginning of the 2012/2013 season.
Following the lead of other national associations, the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) has made a corresponding change to its club licensing regulations. All top division clubs now have to have an SLO. In October 2013, the SLO project consultant Stuart Dykes visited Ukraine to see how well the initiative is being implemented in our game. We asked Stuart to tell us more about the project and share his opinion about the success of the work in Ukraine.
Stuart, where did the idea for the SLO project originate and when?
It all started in Germany in the late 80s, early 90s. Back then, not only here in Germany, but also in other countries, there were big problems with football violence. Various institutions began to discuss the issue and seek ways of solving it. In 1992, the National Concept for Safety and Security in Sport (NKSS) was adopted. The NKSS divided the work with fans into two areas. One of these involves social work with groups of risk fans that is carried out independently of the clubs. The second strand is the work of the SLOs, who are employees of the club and work from the inside. In general terms, however, the first SLO appeared at Borussia Mönchengladbach as early as 1989.
In 2007 the organisation I work for, Supporters Direct, conducted a survey of national associations and found that almost all of them wanted to improve their relations with the fans. Supporters Direct therefore decided to lobby UEFA to introduce a new club licensing regulation that would oblige the teams playing in European competition to have an SLO on their staff. We were successful. Article 35 of the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations was introduced in 2010 and came into effect at the beginning of last season.
Can we say that all the national associations have successfully implemented the new regulation?
Of course there are exceptions. It is now a requirement that at least those clubs who are hoping to play in the Champions League or the Europa League have an SLO. At the same time, however, most of the national associations have incorporated this rule in their domestic regulations, including Ukraine. The top divisions in most countries are already covered by this rule, but the degree of implementation varies strongly. We can name a number of countries in which things are going well, but there are also those where there is practically nothing.
Of the countries who only started to implement the SLO project from the beginning of last season, which have succeeded more than others?
First and foremost I can mention Sweden, which can serve as an example for the whole of Europe. But I think Ukraine will be more interested in the experience of Poland, from which all the eastern European countries can learn. The SLO coordinator in Poland, Dariusz Lapinski, started working in early 2013 and has achieved some good results. He is a sociologist who has worked with football fans in Poland for many years, but he also has experience of working in various fan-related social work projects in Germany. He recently sent us a report on his work and provided a lot of important information about supporter movements in Poland and the processes taking place there. He has also devoted considerable attention to disabled fans, whose interests are not always taken into account in Poland. I think this experience could be very useful for Ukraine, especially given the proximity of the two countries. With that in mind, we also organised a meeting in Denmark where the results of the work in Sweden were presented by a Swedish SLO. I also have to say, however, that we have seen some good results in countries where we might not have expected it, such as Georgia, Armenia and Iceland. Switzerland is good as well.
What problems do you often encounter in the implementation of the project?
The biggest problem is a lack of understanding of what an SLO is and what they do. Even in Germany, where SLOs have been operating for over 20 years, not everyone knows what they are. The second major problem is a lack of trust, on the part of both the clubs and the fans. Clubs are wary of bringing a fan inside their structures, and fans will often not trust someone who is working for the club. Similarly, the police can be reluctant to cooperate with SLOs because they fear they will pass information on to fans. And in general, many doubt the ability of the SLO to have a genuine effect.
In Europe, some football countries are more “democratic” than others. In other words, there is Germany, where the teams play in the Bundesliga and are owned by members of the club, and there is Ukraine, where most of the teams are owned by oligarchs. Have you developed specific approaches to working with different associations?
We understand that in each country the situation is different. Different traditions, different structures, different fan cultures. When we started this project, we were aware that, though there will be a model for the whole of Europe, we will have to adapt it to the needs of each country. In addition to Germany, which you mentioned, there are other countries where an initiative such as ours might be easier to introduce than in others – those in Scandinavia, for example.
Some countries are more difficult to work in because of the political situation, say Ukraine or Turkey. The Balkan countries are not easy because of the specificities of the fan culture there, and often there is the economic factor, as in Greece. To give you an example, yesterday I spoke to representatives of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan to discuss how best to implement the project in their country. There are lots of factors that affect how that is done, and at this initial stage we focus first on outlining the big picture for each country. When we have that, we can make changes to the general strategy and give national associations practical assistance.
The SLO handbook stresses that the SLO must act in the interests of both the club and the fans, as well as being politically neutral. Today in Ukraine, many owners do not support the idea of a “Euromaidan for clubs”, unlike the Ultras. How would you advise a Ukrainian SLO to act?
This is a very difficult situation. Once, a Liverpool fan was talking to the SLO of Borussia Mönchengladbach, who was trying to explain the essence of his work to him. The English guy said: “To me it looks as if you’re trying to ride two horses at the same time.” The challenge is to make these two horses run alongside each other, because if one of them veers off or slows down, the consequences will be tragic. This is a problem in your country, where the owners want one thing and the fans another. SLOs cannot solve all the problems in this case, they have to act as a kind of “go-between”. Sometimes we call them translators, because club owners speak one language and fans speak another. SLOs cannot talk to every fan, and they cannot dictate terms to the club president. In this situation, the only possible advice is to seek an ongoing dialogue between the leadership of the club and the fans. I think club owners should also be interested in this, because happy fans don’t cause problems. At the same time, SLOs need to be in constant communication not only with these two parties, but also with the police, the club security officers and representatives of the federation. SLOs have to constantly monitor the wider situation and gauge the mood of the fans. This can prevent the emergence of many problems.
And what about those unscrupulous clubs who only appoint an SLO on paper or put “their man” in this position, which is handy for them but doesn’t solve any problems? Who can fans complain to?
If the SLO isn’t working or not working properly, the responsibility for this lies primarily with the national association because it’s the domestic club licensing regulations we are talking about, and national associations have to ensure that clubs comply with their rules. UEFA, this is the next step, “monitors” the national associations at the European level. But we have to remember that the aim of UEFA at this stage is to help and support national associations, not to punish them. It is still too early to talk about the imposition of sanctions by the European governing body. Despite the fact that clubs in many countries still do not have what we would call an SLO, we have made great headway in the first three years. This is only the beginning of our work, so we do not intend to scare clubs with sanctions now.
In October you came to Kiev and met the Minister of Youth and Sports, Ravil Safiullin, as well as representatives of the FFU. What did you have time to discuss during your meetings?
Well, as we know, the club licensing regulations of the Ukrainian Premier League contain a written requirement for a supporter liaison officer. During our meeting I was assured that such a rule would soon apply to the clubs of the First and Second League as well. Overall, you know what the situation is: on paper all the clubs have an SLO, but not every club has a working SLO. The problem is that a single strategy, the development of which will be overseen by the FFU, has not been formulated yet. That’s why I came to Ukraine, to help the FFU ascertain what the issues are.
I submitted a draft strategy for approval by the representatives of the FFU and the Ministry of Youth and Sports. The ministry assured me that a decision on the primary task – an information meeting for the clubs – would be made in December. However, the political events in Ukraine have prevented this from going ahead, so the implementation of the plan has had to be postponed indefinitely. If all goes well, however, we will be able to hold such a meeting before the end of the season.
I am in constant touch with the FFU and the ministry, and so as soon as the opportunity arises, we will take it. By the way, I also suggested that they invite Dariusz Lapinski, whose experience can be very helpful for Ukrainian football.
Will it be a closed meeting for SLOs only or will other interested parties be able to take part?
We discussed various proposals for the format of this meeting. I think that first of all we need to bring together the representatives of the clubs who are responsible for implementing the project and selecting the SLOs. But perhaps the FFU will prefer to invite the SLOs themselves to the first meeting.
It is our understanding that in some Ukrainian clubs the SLOs exist on paper only, and we would not want to see random people attend this meeting. So our first priority is to offer some initial training for club officials, who can then return home and evaluate whether they have appointed the right SLO or need to appoint someone else. Later we will organise a workshop for all the SLOs. That’s our main problem at this initial stage.