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Where Do We Stand? Football Fans and European Sport Policy

Following the support for the involvement of supporters in football governance structures by the European Parliament, Council of Ministers and Council of Europe in their recent sports policy resolutions, a position espoused by SD Europe, we sat down with Dr Borja García, Senior Lecturer in Sport Policy (Loughborough University, UK), EU sport policy expert and SD Europe Advisory Board member.

We asked Borja to offer his interpretation of the recent resolutions, what they actually mean and what the wide political support for fan involvement actually means for the future.

Recently, we have seen the European Parliament Sports Report, the draft resolution by the Council of the European Union and yesterday’s report for the CoE by Lord Foulkes all back supporter involvement in the running of the game. They all call for more fan involvement in decision-making in chime with SD Europe’s mission.

Do these interventions all work in the same direction? Are they a result of growing commercialisation, the Super League threat and the COVID-19 pandemic? And what exactly is the European Model of Sport? How does SD Europe fit in?

"The second part of 2021 saw a flurry of political activity in Europe discussing the values that should underpin the regulation and organisation of European sport. Three key documents have been adopted by different European institutions: the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, and the Council of Europe. The latter, we should remember, is not part of the European Union, but an intergovernmental international organisation (think of the UN of Europe). Whereas the documents are complex, broadly speaking the three institutions were reflecting on similar questions: How should sport be organised in Europe? Which values does European society want to protect in sport? Do we need to act in order to protect some of the values we, as Europeans, cherish and care for in sport? Their answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, similar. These political documents clearly identify community values in European sport, with a call to protect the sociocultural and educational role of sport in society, the importance of sporting merit over economic prowess in sporting competitions, and the need to ensure democracy and transparency in sport at all levels.

In fairness, this has been debated since the 1990s, but in the last few years it has seemed slightly dormant because more attention was paid to developing policies in more specific issues, such as promoting physical activity, fighting discrimination in and through sport, or combating doping. In a way, the organisational and institutional status-quo was relatively accepted, whilst policy makers and sport organisations seemed to be more interested in other "wicked issues" that were relevant for sport and wider public policy. This is not to say that there was no discussion about the governance model of sport in Europe, as for example the role of supporters was mentioned often, but it did not feature at the top of the political agenda. This certainly changed in 2021, and whereas it is not possible to identify a single reason for this change, there is no doubt that the announcement of the European Super League was what we academics call a "focusing event". It was very telling how the vice-president of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas, called for the protection of the European Model of Sport within hours of the Super League being announced.

All three documents mentioned above discuss to some extent, some more than others, the concept of the European Model of Sport. Interestingly, one of the main conclusions when reading those declarations is that the so-called European Model of Sport is rather difficult to define. The Council of Europe, for example, chooses not to use those words, whereas both the Parliament and the Council admit that this is a little bit of a moving target. What is, therefore, the European Model of Sport? Does it even exist if the institutions are not able to find consensus? In my view, yes there is a European Model of Sport or, at the very least, a way to approach sport that is specifically European and has some important characteristics that deserve protection. This does not mean, however, that there is a single European model of sport governance, and that is a very important distinction! The European Model of Sport (let’s use the expression until we find a better one) has two different dimensions, and this is very important. On the one hand, it is defined by a set of values such as sporting merit, promotion and relegation in open competition, sociocultural identity, community links, solidarity, democracy and transparency. On the other hand, the model is defined by governance structures that should implement, develop and protect these values. Supporters and their representative organisations, such as SD Europe, are important for both dimensions. On the one hand, supporters are one of the most important elements for ensuring the sociocultural and community links of sport. But, moreover, supporters are fundamental for contributing to transparency and democracy. Thus, think of football supporters in the same way you would think of the relevance of citizens for your local council. On the other hand, if supporters are to fulfil their potential in nurturing the values of the EMS, they need to have a recognised and formal role in the governance structures of the game. They cannot be mere consumers, in the same way that citizens cannot be mere consumers of their local council decisions."

The European Institutions have adopted various sports reports in the past: the Parliament’s Belet-, Fisas- and Takkula reports, and the Commission’s White Paper on Sport. They all were positive about democratically run clubs and stakeholder involvement, but have they had an actual impact?

"As mentioned above, the debate about the EMS has appeared at different times since the 1990s. The resolutions of the Parliament, Council and Council of Europe have not been adopted in a vacuum. All European institutions have attempted to define what sport they want Europe to have, and how it should be organised. In some of the previous reports and declarations football took a central stage, especially the European Parliament report of Belgian MEP Ivo Belet, whereas others tried to approach sport in a wider sense. However, there was a common feature in all of them: a concern about the lack of appropriate governance and management standards in sport in general, and football in particular. European institutions have insisted since the 1990s that they do not want to regulate and legislate how sport should be organised, but that they will have to do it if governance levels do not improve. A permanent request of EU institutions is that representative stakeholders should be involved in decision-making. Past EP, Commission and Council reports insisted that supporters will improve democracy and transparency in football, hence protecting the European Model of Sport. However, the documents tended to fall short of formally requesting the inclusion of supporters in decision-making structures, something a bit surprising given the very positive tone towards supporters. In a way, we need to understand previous declarations as incremental stages that were paving the way to what happened in 2021, which was accelerated due to the Super League."

What do these reports actually mean if they have no legal weight? What is their individual impact and do they carry a collective leverage? Do they increase pressure? Could you put it in the context of the UEFA Convention?

"It is worth remembering that neither the past declarations, nor even the ones adopted in 2021 are legally binding. They are all political declarations calling on the Commission, Member States, UEFA and other stakeholders to act. It will be unwise for federations, leagues and clubs not to take steps in the direction pointed by the EU institutions, but they are not legally obliged to do so. Given we now find ourselves in a moment of debate about the future of European football, not least because of UEFA’s convention, the recent declarations increase pressure on UEFA, national federations, leagues and clubs to engage in meaningful debate with supporters. In my view, the European Parliament and the Council have now put too much pressure on UEFA not to formally recognise supporters in their structures in the same way they did with clubs and players. It remains to be seen whether UEFA choses to do this informally, using for example MoUs, or more formally, creating specific committees or even seats on the Executive Committee. The same debate should happen at the national level. In Spain, for example, the new national sports act should allow supporters to have voting rights in the RFEF’s AGM. Whereas the direction of travel is clear, we should not underestimate the conservative nature of sport organisations and their reluctance to change. It will take clear, concerted and constant pressure to ensure federations and clubs accept the change.

One further question here is the extent to which all these discussions will permeate to the Court of Justice when dealing with the Super League challenge on UEFA. The Court has never rendered its rulings in a vacuum, and it is quite a political actor in the EU. Recent case-law suggests the judges do have a sensitivity towards the more sociocultural values of sport, but perhaps not as much as some would like them to. This is quite a difficult bet, but if you ask me today, I think the Court will recognise the role of UEFA as a governing body; it will probably recall the structures of the European Model of Sport, but at the same time it will tell UEFA that it needs to allow other rival competitions such as the Super League as long as they fulfil a set of clear, transparent and non-discriminatory criteria."

What next for Brussels, football and SD Europe and other stakeholders? We keep saying that it seems that all stakeholders want one European football. In our view this means we all have to cooperate, collaborate and show real solidarity. Otherwise we will have more than one football, e.g. a super league!

"The failed launch of the Super League has precipitated a debate that was long overdue: what football do we want in Europe? Whereas this has been discussed by academics and by supporters before, it has never made the top of the political agenda. I would say it never made the top of the football agenda either. To a certain extent, and as baffling as it might sound, it was probably Michel Platini who was the only top-level football administrator who dared to ask questions about the nature and values of European football when he launched the idea of Financial Fair Play. It does not mean I agree with Platini’s views or actions, but he did put some questions on the table. This, however, is a debate that is very easy to stage, but extremely difficult to agree on shared conclusions. What football do we want in Europe? Do we want to regulate, control or even curtail the commercial development of football? If so, who should be in charge of that regulation? If not, what would the consequences be? It seems to me that a fragile political consensus is emerging that excessive commercialisation puts the values of European sport at risk. However, it is a fragile consensus that not every stakeholder accepts because there is now a lot of global financial capital investing in European sport. Furthermore, there is no agreement on how to move forward to implement that possible consensus amongst those who more or less share a common view.

Thus, in the absence of political action, reality marches on, and the financial sector is slowly penetrating football. CVC will buy part of La Liga’s commercial rights, Citigroup will provide loans against commercial rights for UEFA’s COVID-19 recovery fund, and we might soon see private equity funds acquiring large shares of competition ownership in the same way CVC did with the English Rugby Premiership.

Against this background, there is a risk that football will end up in a scenario not much different from basketball, whereas the major European clubs were breaking away from traditional structures until COVID-19 arrived. If this is to be avoided, there is a need for action. It can be political or regulatory action, but in my view, this is unlikely to happen at EU level because there is no appetite in Member States to allow the EU to regulate football in the same way it regulates the transport market, for example. However, the last two years have seen two historical developments at European level, namely the joint purchase of COVID-19 vaccines and, even more surprising, the EU recovery funds. These two decisions go against a very strong intergovernmental dynamic that has dominated Europe in the last decade. Thus, is the Super League strong enough a shock to change the dynamics in terms of sport policy and convince Member States they should allow EU legislation on football? It could, but it will be difficult in my view. European political institutions are, however, likely to favour and support football stakeholders to cooperate in order to maintain a united system of European football. It is, therefore, the moment for cooperation if we want to avoid an atomisation of European football that could follow the example of basketball. The nature of collaborative and network governance, though, is that decisions are normally sub-optimal and tend to be second choice. In other words, you do not always get what you want, and you need to make concessions in order to achieve some of your objectives. This will apply to all stakeholders, starting with UEFA and clubs, but also to supporters, I am afraid."

What does all this mean for supporters and for SD Europe?

"First, the good news. Supporters have demonstrated they can be a positive stakeholder, and their positive input has finally been recognised. I do not see how UEFA and other institutions can now get out of formally recognising their role. This is, for me, the most likely outcome of them all. But once this decision is taken, another question arises: who represents the supporters? SD Europe is very well placed to be one of the representative organisations, because it has the knowledge and the output legitimacy. That is to say, because it has earned its legitimacy with its good and constructive work. However, one can always question the "input legitimacy" (sorry for using academic jargon). In other words, the legitimacy of SD Europe can be challenged based on its representativeness; and this will surely be done by those who do not share SD Europe’s views. I, personally, think it is unfair, but realistically this can happen, and it is likely to happen. SD Europe needs to let its track record speak for itself. SD Europe needs to continue its work on the future of football. It needs to believe in its own vision articulating the structures, values and governance of the game. As a legitimate stakeholder, SD Europe should not be shy. It can and must promote its own strategic vision of future European football. SD Europe speaks on behalf of a supporter community that is part of that future and, therefore, it has a view on the main questions I put forward at the very beginning: How should football be organised in Europe? Which values does European society want to protect in football?"

Thank you to Dr Borja García for his contribution. Follow him on Twitter here.


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