Football and Democracy ⋆ An Old International

Football and Democracy

This headline might evoke thoughts about FIFA and their dubious British model where the owners consider clubs as assets for their own benefit and thus certainly are not interested in having anyone without their “business background” interfere while they are making money. Because of that clubs change owners every once in a while or three times in a season as happened at Portsmouth a while ago. The club had to go into administration since and has not recovered and are currently in thirteenth position in the English Championship (second division in old terms).

The most recent FIFA blunder by Sepp Blatter was to go to Burma to gather support for his presidency campaign. Now Burma is not considered to be a country that adheres to democratic values; arguably there are fields in which no country really could be considered democratic but that is another matter.

David Conn of the Guardian yesterday pointed out that Leeds United so far failed to disclose who their real owners are. Ken Bates is the boss at Leeds but he is backed by three unknown financial sources registered in Zurich but steered from a tax haven somewhere else. This has nothing to do with democracy rather plutocracy. The FA failed to spot that Thaksin Shinawatra, once the owner of Manchester City, had a human rights record as well as accusations of corruption.

The case of AC Milan is a particular one as Silvio Berlusconi is the owner not just of the club but also of various media institutions reporting about the club. Any coverage that is not to his gusto is immediately accused of communist propaganda against his and his politics. Real Madrid have long been the club of General Franco, one of the last Fascist regime to be toppled in Europe after 1945.

The case of Hoffenheim in Germany shows the power of the chairman/owner of a football club. Dietmar Hopp decided to sell Luiz Gustavo to Bayern and as a consequence Rangnick, then coach of the first team, left the club as he did not know about the transfer and if he would have, he would not have agreed.

The list of this is endless it seems. What has that got to with democracy one might ask and the answer might be nothing but actually it must be: quite a lot. Football is a politics free zone one is inclined to say, but these examples certainly show otherwise. And it does not stop there. Fans have been treated like animals until the early 1990s. The aftermath of the Valley Parade fire in 1985 and Hillsborough 1989 were proof that the game was not highly regarded among officials and government. to date fans have no or only limited influence on how their beloved clubs are run. The most positive example is that of FC United of Manchester, FCUM. Established six years ago by disgruntled Man Utd supporters after the Glazer takeover and another season ticket price increase, they wanted something where they have a say in everything how the club is run. This season they have enjoyed a very successful FA Cup run which shows how far they have come in the space of six years.

Of course, not all attempts to run a football club as democratically as possible are successful. Ebbsfleet United were even earlier than FCUM in promoting a football club organized by fans. For a small fee each member had a vote to elect the team and the manager. However, after a promising start, the project faced difficulties in recruiting sufficient members and the project appears to have failed.

The German Bundesliga is often portrayed as the holy grail from the viewpoint of English football fans. Points brought forward include cheap tickets, standing and good football. The first two are clearly an advantage to the overprized, overhyped English Premier League. The third point lies in the eyes of the beholder and is disputable. The fan scene in Germany appears to be more vivid than its English counterpart and their influence is said to be bigger. But is it really? The clubs are run by a n executive board which in return are controlled by a supervisory board. This is supposed to be an independent body in order to control the executive board of the club. The hypocrisy is that is not the case. The supervisory board very often is elected by the executive board: those to be controlled chose themselves who controls them. This is democracy perverted. This disables fans to do what they are supposed to do: to have a say in the running of their beloved football clubs. Something somewhere has gone seriously wrong.

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