BY JIM KEOGHAN
Narratives are always spun around football. Results and seasons are shaped almost as much by how they are interpreted as they are by what actually happened. The media presents us with stories that create an impression; an emotional connection; a feeling of how we should judge what takes place.
In the build-up and aftermath of the recent Champions League final, one such narrative was the sense that Liverpool were the more ‘authentic’ club on offer. Real Madrid were cast as an international super-brand; a corporate powerhouse; stuffed with expensive mercenaries and followed by tourist fans. By contrast, however ridiculous, Liverpool were billed as the anti-Real; an outsider crashing the party; a team rather than a collection of stars; a club followed by real people who lived and died for the cause.
But when writing the equation for what constitutes ‘authenticity’ in this instance, nobody bothered to mention how differently these two clubs are organised.
One is owned by an investment sports company (in effect, a hedge fund), which has its finger in lots of different pies and which is run by very wealthy individuals, none of whom appear to have any long-standing love of the game. The other is a democratically structured organisation, run and owned by the fans, some 90,000 at the last count. It is, at its heart, a punk football club, albeit one that is wildly successful.
In broad terms, the Champions League final represented two clubs at divergent ends of the ownership spectrum; one embracing democracy, supporter engagement and perhaps a more ‘authentic’ way to run matters, the other capitalism in its rawest form (everything, we are led to believe, that takes football away from the people).
What’s surprising, considering the narrative that shaped the final, is that the former is Real Madrid and the latter, Liverpool.
In Spain, unlike England, fan ownership was once the norm in football. It was the dominant model right up until the 1980s when a financial crisis reshaped the game. In response to the crisis, the Government stepped in and bailed out any clubs with untenable levels of debt. In return, it forced those helped to convert to Sociedades Anonimas Deportiva (publically limited sports companies), via the introduction of the Ley 10/1990 del Deporte (Spanish Sports Act).
Despite the financial maelstrom, a handful of clubs had actually managed to maintain healthy balance sheets and so, under the Seventh Additional Provision of the Spanish Sports Act, these were exempt from the changes. The provision stated that any club which managed to stay in the black for five years, starting from the 1985/86 season, could maintain its existing legal organisational structure. This meant that the fan-owned system was allowed to continue, albeit for a limited few, namely Athletic Club de Bilbao, FC Barcelona, CA Osasuna and Real Madrid.
These four, along with others from Germany and Sweden (combined with a smattering elsewhere in Europe), came to represent an alternative to the dominant model of ownership that today characterises the majority of football clubs under the jurisdiction of UEFA. They might, at first glance, have nothing in common but supporter owned clubs in this country like FC United of Manchester, AFC Wimbledon and Exeter City, clubs that are often heralded as being more ‘authentic’, share DNA with the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the mighty Real.
At the heart of that ‘DNA’ is the idea of democracy. Liverpool fans might espouse their heritage, talk about ‘tradition’ and wax lyrical about the bonds that unite them, but despite all of that, they remain customers. Passionate customers who can generate a good atmosphere, but customers nonetheless. Liverpool FC, like the majority of football clubs in Europe, are a business. The wealthy owners, Fenway Sports Group, can do as they please, irrespective of what the fans think.
By contrast, despite the money the club makes, the superstar talent it attracts, the nakedly commercial approach, Real possess a deep rooted connection to their fans via the ownership model. Although the club might represent so much that is wrong with modern football, there is an ‘authenticity’ evident at the Bernabéu that most clubs could only dream of. Their fans, or ‘socios’ as members are known, can have a genuine impact on the way in which the club is governed. They are not customers but rather stakeholders, who are connected to Real in a way that is depressingly rare in European football.
In England, supporter ownership has come a long way since it first emerged at Northampton Town in 1992. There are now around 300,000 people involved in supporters trusts in this country and just over 30 football clubs run along democratic lines. Some of these, such as AFC Wimbledon, Exeter City and Wycombe Wanderers even populate the Football League. But despite the advancement of this model, it remains a minority one, often confined to the lower reaches of the pyramid. And part of the reason for this is the belief that clubs cannot succeed if owned by the supporters, that only the ‘traditional’ model of ownership, the wealthy backer, offers a path of glory.
For those of us who would like to see greater fan democracy in the game, and I count myself amongst that number, we should look at the likes of Real Madrid and their ilk with hope. Eight of the past ten Champions League finals have been won by a supporter owned club. And although each of them (Real, Barcelona, Bayern), enjoy huge domestic advantages, their achievements do illustrate that supporter democracy and success at the highest level need not be mutually exclusive.
It’s the Champions League and so any winner, to some degree, is likely to be a cash drenched brand. Truly ‘authentic’ clubs don’t get to the competition, let alone the final. But in any narrative weaved, give me the supporter owned club any day over the one owned by a hedge fund, a Russian billionaire or a Middle Eastern sheik. Even if that club is Real Madrid.
Follow Jim on Twitter @jimmykeo