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What is a football club after all?

The debacle of the European Super League has highlighted the unique nature of football clubs and the complex relationship they have with their fans. PhD candidate Antonis Ragkousis, himself a former football agent, looks how deeply football clubs are rooted in their communities in the UK and Europe and he warns that cutting these links will mean they cease to be football clubs at all…

The recent uproar and unified action of football supporters throughout the world, and especially in Germany and the UK, against the creation of a so-called European Super League (ESL) brought to the fore a contradiction which has been hidden under the carpet of the modern game for decades; that of the notion of the ‘football club’ as opposed to that of the ‘franchise’.

These terms have been used interchangeably alongside terms such as ‘brand’ or ‘company’ to describe ‘Liverpool Football Club’ or ‘Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club’, but are these the same things?

Football clubs were born in the UK in the first part of the 19th century as associations of local communities brought into existence in order to serve a common good. Prior to that, the game was played in a rather raw, anarchic and unorganized, but nonetheless genuine and spontaneous, fashion by people in the streets.

Due to the chaos and the general unrest they caused, the authorities prosecuted those who participated in its public conduct. However, on realising the value of the game, the communities themselves (unmediated) agreed upon a series of rules that had to be mutually accepted by their members so the football club could continue and benefit the community as a whole.

The creation of the European Super League signified, in the most explicit way, an attempt of certain individual owners to challenge their genuine foundations and so brought to the fore the contradiction between two very different concepts about what a football club is.– Antonis Ragkousis

Organic extensions of communities

Their purpose was to enable the community to participate in the game itself in a variety of roles or positions; as supporters, players and coaches, and so football became a nexus of social inclusion through the active participation of the entire community. There was a position available for anyone wishing to engage with the game. These football clubs were the communities which constituted them.

There wasn’t a player without a coach, a coach without a kitman or a football club without its supporters. In other words, the clubs were a web of relationships between members of a community each of whom play a purposeful role, which in turn is intertwined with the roles of others. As with all relationships, they were founded on trust.

The clubs became the organic extensions of the communities who were in turn (literal) supporters (and not just ‘fans’) of the clubs. The players were chosen to play as the best representatives of the communities. And this is how modern heroes were born, because they originated from the same neighborhoods as those who supported them. The supporters identified with them simply because each player was one of their own.

Different communities had different sets of values that were central to their collective identity and, in many cases, even to accepting any new member. From workers in armaments factories in Woolwich (Arsenal), to coal miners in Gelsenkirchen (Schalke), refugees of the Asia Minor Disaster (AEK Athens) and communities subordinated to colonial rule (Mohun Bagan), these communities, created football clubs as an act of collective representation. These values and collective experiences were embedded into the very fabric and culture of the football clubs which were in turn the representatives and ‘athletic voices’ of these communities in the wider sporting sphere. Among others, that was one of the predominant purposes of the football club standing in many cases as the connective tissue of these communities, aiming at promoting their well-being.

Profit as a goal

If we see communities like the parents, then football clubs were their offspring. Throughout the years, football clubs ‘grew up’ and, adapted to the world to best serve their own purposes. In this analogy, they became professional, privately-owned and managed clubs, they signed players and personnel from different parts of the world and, further to winning games, appropriately representing and contributing to the well-being of their communities, they now had an additional goal; that of making profits for their new owners.

Until recently, this change hadn’t been too problematic. These new people (the owners), who weren’t necessarily members of the community, promised to abide by the values of the communities and invest in these ‘old world’ clubs to make them more competitive and increase the well-being of the community. In exchange, they would try to capitalise on the on-field success and broader appeal of the club by creating a brand image to sell relevant merchandise throughout the world to prospective ‘fans’ (also known as customers). If they achieved this, they would keep any extra profit. It sounded like a good deal.

Serving the owner’s interests

Moving to other ‘newer’ parts of the world though, many communities have different historical paths and (even less) common history. So, their understanding about what a community is, or what football clubs (and perhaps sport as a whole) are all about, is very different. In many parts of the ‘new world’, competitive football clubs were not the organic offspring of some local communities, but were instead created by a few individuals who had a specific purpose in mind and this didn’t necessarily include local communities.

In other words, the local communities aren’t the parents or the extended family of these football clubs but were instead brought into existence in order to serve the purposes set by their owners. The relations between the communities and those football clubs (the relations which ultimately form the football clubs) aren’t primarily those of stewardship anymore, as those between parents and children, but are instead exclusively those of third-party ownership. Behold the creation of the ‘sports franchise’, which is quite different from the football club.

In these parts of the ‘new world’ the franchise came well before the football club. Given that for any franchise (not just in sports) local communities are merely contingent and external to it, being merely the most immediately reachable customers (‘fans’), this means that these communities can be replaced, when the time comes, and the franchise, having used them in order to grow, is ready to target new customers (‘fans’) if that would suit the purposes of the owners better.

The creation of the European Super League signified, in the most explicit way, an attempt of certain individual owners to challenge their genuine foundations and so brought to the fore the contradiction between two very different concepts about what a football club is.

Some parts of the ‘new world’ might have found this whole unrest over the ESL quite odd. It is only ‘rational’ for franchises to leave a place like Seattle (Supersonics) and move to a place like Oklahoma (Thunder) for financial reasons and to serve their owners, despite the fact that the franchise has been based at Seattle for 41 years.

In the ESL proposal, local supporters, perhaps in the form of port workers in Merseyside or cutlery manufacturers in Sheffield, who would be depressed for a few days following a defeat of their club from their regional rivals, would quickly be replaced by hundreds of millions of franchise merchandise buyers from any other side of the globe. All that, ‘for the benefit of the football club’ of course, which is now not just distinct, but antithetical to that of the very communities that created and still give life (and meaning) to the football clubs. With the ESL, these local communities were being forcefully replaced by the abstract notion of the ‘global fan’.

A critic might say that in the 21st century there are no such imaginary communities and that, next time, the ESL clubs will get their PR right and they will have it their way. However, the (apparent) complete collapse of the European Super League project within a few hours of its triumphant announcement, suggests otherwise.

It seems that, at least for now, it is more realistic to suggest that as far as the ‘old world’ is concerned, football clubs are, first and foremost, communal institutions with their own history, culture and identity, and then, to a secondary extent, they are companies. This means that they cannot be completely detached from their local communities and become franchises. When they do so, they will simply cease being football clubs.

In this story

Antonis  Ragkousis

Antonis Ragkousis

PhD Student in Public Services Management and Organisation

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