In recent years the model of fan ownership exercised through supporters’ trusts has been increasingly high-profile in British football, not least thanks to the sterling work of the national body Supporters Direct (SD). Meanwhile, very different yet nonetheless successful models of fan ownership exist across the continent, as seen throughout the Bundesliga or alternatively with the ‘socio’ model as at Real Madrid or Barcelona. Though the scale varies along with the specifics of the structure, all of these systems share the basic features of greater fan participation in the running of the club. But until recently few projects of this kind have been found in Italy. Now at last that might be beginning to change.
The reasons for the Italian situation, which is in some ways anomalous, are many and varied: the traditional model of club ownership has always been that of the wealthy industrialist family (car makers, oil barons, shoe manufacturers, food processing plant owners, bankers, newspaper magnates, shopping centre owners, building giants, the list is endless). Club presidents and chief executives are simultaneously running other major commercial enterprises, while their boards are stuffed with wives, brothers, cousins, aunts… incidentally, Italy has been more open to female club presidents or directors than you might expect – when they’re the daughters of original buyers.
In this paternalistic model, where fewer clubs are quoted on the stock exchange than in the UK, fan ownership has rarely been seriously discussed until recently. Moreover the legal situation in each country differs such that models are not universally transferrable: in Italy cooperatives may be the most helpful way to structure collective ownership, but many Italians have feared that the idea is impracticable here.
In the last decade, though, there has been a continual stream of clubs going into administration or disbanding entirely at all levels of Italian football from Serie A through to D, and an increasing resentment among fans at the caprices of the wealthy few at the expense of the many. Perhaps the moment for supporters’ trusts has arrived.
Modena Calcio and AS Roma
Modena Calcio, currently playing in Serie B, are leading the way in this regard with a project for fan ownership, launched in December 2008 by former fanzine editor Andrea Gigliotti. The project in Modena is currently raising funds in order to buy shares in the club while also developing closer ties with the current administration. Meanwhile the Modena Sport Club Cooperative also hosted the first Italian conference on fan ownership – known as ‘Azionariato Popolare’ or ‘popular shareholding’ in Italian. Supporters’ Direct Europe is also helping them out: this is a section of SD dedicated to helping clubs across Europe to set up Supporters’ Trusts, created with the encouragement of UEFA and the European Commission. With the assistance of SD Europe, similar moves are afoot in other Italian clubs like Bari and Pisa, but the largest club where this idea is currently being discussed is Roma.
Burdened with over €300 million of debts incurred not by the club but by its parent holding company, Italpetroli, Roma has been in trouble for some time now. The current owners, the Sensi family, have resisted approaches from several foreign buyers in their efforts to hang on to the club which remains one of the family’s main assets; they are also notoriously incommunicative. The club has had little or no cash to spend on the transfer market for several years – making its performance in the Champions’ League in recent years particularly impressive – but supporters’ patience is exhausted. This is the ideal backdrop for motivating people to set up their own Supporters’ Trust, since the values of accountability, transparency and democratic decision making which fan ownership promotes are precisely those qualities most lacking at Roma right now.
The project coordinator Walter Campanile, however, is keen to emphasise that his project is “pro-Roma not anti-Sensi”. Rightly, he emphasises that long term stability and participation should be the goals of a supporters’ trust, rather than quick fixes. A website has been created to gather potential members and lawyers are investigating the Italian legal implications of the model. In theory at least there is no reason why a system which is successful at Bayern or Barcelona can’t work in Rome as well, a city of over 4 million people of whom at least half would claim to support the Giallorossi (at a conservative estimate!) Perhaps the greatest obstacle will be public scepticism: Italians are convinced that their country is special (it is) and uniquely difficult (it isn’t) and that Italian football is entirely unlike any other football anywhere in the world (hmmm).
At this stage Campanile is simply recruiting moral support through online and media campaigns, and slowly but surely interest is being generated within Rome and, just as importantly, elsewhere. I should here declare my interest: as the official English translator of the project I am not precisely a neutral observer. It was impossible for me not to support the idea, as an AFC Wimbledon sympathiser and a believer in direct democratic action. It is true that there are lot of ingrained interests at risk in Italian football, from political connections to ultras’ groups, which may make it harder to promote the supporters’ trust model here. But it wasn’t precisely easy in England to begin with, and few things worth doing are ever easy. Watch this space.