A New Dawn For Italian Football Supporters?
The Summer of 2010 won’t be remembered as the happiest of times for Italian football. The Home Minister introduced a compulsory ID card for fans known as the ‘Tessera del Tifoso’, which has threatened supporters’ freedom and generated chaos, particularly for those travelling to away matches. The national team’s departure from the World Cup came at an embarrassingly early stage, and as the beginning of the season drew closer, the prevailing atmosphere was one of uncertainty and concern. As a result of their chronic financial problems, about 30 clubs were barred from entry by their Leagues, and were relegated to lower divisions or forced out of existence altogether. Such a tragic state of affairs is not unfamiliar to Italian football fans, but this Summer represented the nadir of the crisis.
As a result, the Italian Supporters’ Trust movement has mushroomed, and three organizations have been created with the help of Supporters Direct and their Italian collaborators. Of course, ensuring that these organisations met Supporters Direct’s aims and values required months of behind the scenes meetings, research and education. The fact that these new Trusts developed over the Summer shows why they are so special. Traditionally a season of relaxation, hope and expectation for fans (but increasingly one where thousands of them have to face up to the rumours surrounding their own club’s financial problems), their emergence reflects the level of desire for change amongst Italian football fans.
During the last few months, fans of S.S Cavese 1919, F.B.C. Unione Venezia and U.S. Ancona 1905 provided a tangible response, a hint of hope, a signal that something is changing; even in Italy. Just a few years ago, it would have been risky to place any faith in an Italian Supporters’ Trust movement. Several initiatives, grounded not in fandom but in money-making or political interests, had failed in previous years. The Italian culture of fan ownership is still in its infancy, compared with that of other European countries. But many supporters have become frustrated by what they have seen happen to their clubs, frustrated by their inability to help — until now. Thanks to the Internet, an echo of what has become commonplace elsewhere in Europe is beginning to be heard, and interest in fan ownership is a major part of this development. At the aforementioned three clubs, a total of 3000 supporters decided to take action — and in a few weeks achieved results to be proud of.
By law, Italian professional clubs must be the equivalent of English public or private limited companies, and semi-professional or amateur clubs have chosen this structure as well. Therefore control of clubs, from the top to the bottom of the pyramid, has traditionally been concentrated in the hands of private, individual owners. Fans have always been expected to accept decisions from above, despite the ever-present threat of mass protests. The average Italian football fan is also generally considered a stupid, vulgar and uneducated person (of course, there are also fans of this type in other countries!). This widespread perception has presented a major challenge for the new trust movement, but its first steps have been promising. With legal assistance from Supporters Direct, the first groups chose to structure themselves as associations — a simple, democratic and not for profit organisation, which allows members (i.e fans) to buy and own shares through the trust.
Let’s have a closer look at these three trusts, which are now officially Supporters Direct affiliates. They all aim to be involved in the running of their club, to be represented on the board, and in the end to become shareholders, as well as to be active in the community and in social initiatives under their club colours.
Cavese currently compete in Girone B of the Lega Pro Prima Divisione, so it’s a professional club. Their status came under serious threat last Summer, when the club risked going out of existence because of a deep financial crisis. It was saved at the last moment, thanks to the actions of many fans and citizens, who donated more than €200,000. This wasn’t the first desperate moment in the history of Cavese, and the supporters decided to do something to protect their beloved club. The footballing environment in Cava dei Tirreni is complicated, but Sogno Cavese has rapidly become a reference point for everyone who cares about the club; thanks to their credibility, transparency and independence. The trust was launched at the beginning of July, includes fans from every section of the stadium and has 600 members, including local hero Rino Santin, who was the manager during the club’s golden era.
When all the people who had given money during the preseason fundraising were asked to choose a representative, the trust Chairman won the election hands down, and is now on the club’s board, with advisory, proactive and checking functions.
“Through Sogno Cavese, we want to become protagonists in our own history. The unbreakable bond between a town and its population, a footballing history that stretches back to 1919, and the passion for the club shirt are the reasons behind our decision to start a supporters’ trust”, says board member Giuseppe Abbamonte. “To us, Cavese is more than a mere football team: it embodies our passion, our love for the local area, and respect for our history. As an integral part of the community, we believe that the club should be governed by democratic principles, and based on participation and representation. We’re committing ourselves with passion, and setting aside self-interest. We are aware we’re not the only ones who have chosen to do this, and we hope that our dream [the Italian word for which is ‘sogno’] will soon become a reality.”
One of Italy’s most famous cities, Venice was also among the first to produce an alternative model for running the local football club, Venezia. It wasn’t implemented but left as a legacy the idea that it is possible for fans to collaborate with local institutions and businesses. In the Summer of 2009 the club was unable to weather yet another crisis, and thus was relegated from Lega Pro Prima Divisione to the amateur Serie D, where it competes today. As a result of this, the fans decided that they wanted to have an important role in the new era, and to help the club become successful and sustainable. At the beginning of July they founded Venezia United. The trust now has some 1200 members, including important figures from the local sporting and civil arena, as well as the team captain.
Their goals for the future are ambitious: they want to double in membership size over the next three months, and to add €50,000 to their capital by the end of 2010. They also hope to buy some of the shares that are due to be issued soon, following the owner’s announcement that he can no longer be responsible for the running of the club. Local institutions gave – and are still giving – their help, but it’s not sufficient and at the time of writing, no credible buyer has emerged. Venezia United needs to be part of the future ownership structure, in order to let their opinions on how the club should be run going forward be heard; and acted upon.
“More than 1100 members in just over three months is quite a number, and it indicates that the route being taken is the right one. Now comes the challenging task of broadening our focus, reducing the influence of militant supporters, and beginning to work on the economic realities affecting our project”, says Chairman Franco Vianello Moro. “Our goal is still some way off, but the scope of the commitment that we have made has been recognised by the Town Council, as well as the FBC Unione Venezia- with whom we are discussing a possible position on the club board, initially as auditors.”
Ancona was one of the clubs to suffer the most last Summer: it wasn’t accepted into Serie B (where it finished 17th last season) and was sent down to the regional Eccellenza. SOSTENIAMOLANCONA (let’s support Ancona) was born at the end of August, and the fans were heavily involved in the early development of the new club. They voted on the new name, the colours, and the stadium. The trust now has around 800 members gathered under the motto “our passion can’t be relegated” — sentiments which have been borne out by the average attendance of 3500 fans for each home game.
The trust is working closely with the club, and has two elected representatives on the board. The present owner has already announced that if the club are promoted at the end of this season it will become a limited company and SOSTENIAMOLANCONA will take possession of 17% of the shares. He will retain 34% and sell the remaining 49% on the market. This arrangement ensures that the Trust will continue to have a crucial role in the decision-making process.
“Our association is truly the result of spontaneous action, precipitated by a desperate situation. The project has grown step by step, with widespread fan involvement. Now I’m more convinced than ever that the supporters are what really counts”, said chairman David Miani. “It was important for us to try and bring about change, not just to talk. We really tried to do something different for our passion, for our club, in its difficult moment. We wanted to be able to say that when needed, we did everything that we could possibly do. It seemed impossible but now we are 800-strong, we have two auditors on the club board, we’re working towards a brighter future; and we are reviving the people’s passion for the club, even in a very low league”.
Supporters Direct is also in touch with other fan groups in Italy, including myRoma (an AS Roma fan group with more than 300 members and 0.0045% of the club’s shares), Modena Sport Club co-operative (more than 150 members), and Il Mio Potenza association (more than 100 members). A new initiative in Brescia is also expected over the next few months.
The Italian movement for fan involvement and ownership is part of a wider movement that is growing across Europe with the help of Supporters Direct; which includes clubs from several countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Israel. Each country clearly has its own particular contexts and problems, but it has become clear that the factors which unite the fans are far more numerous than those which divide them. The sense of being part of a wider movement is a source of pride and confidence for all concerned.