Love football but hate the way clubs treat fans? If so, then you are certainly not alone. Many fans – especially those who support some of the bigger clubs in Europe – feel cheated by their clubs’ owners. Given that football enjoys more support globally than any other spectator sport, it is a truly remarkable phenomenon that fans are so often seen venting their frustrations online or with banners during home fixtures. Why is it that some of the best-known worldwide sports brands have seemingly lost their way and become tarnished? After all, interest in football from the general public is its lifeblood. With sports like rugby union and American football making such headway in Europe, it would perhaps be more telling if the big European football clubs were reaching out to their fans rather than ignoring them. Just look at the number of sports betting tips and websites that are devoted to up-and-coming sports these days compared with the established ones, like football. Where the betting money goes, so fans will often soon follow.
What went wrong with football clubs’ relationships with their fan bases? Why do fans feel they can’t trust the clubs they support and, perhaps more importantly, what can be done about it?
The Closed Transfer Circuit
Have you ever wondered why your club is not playing on a level field when it comes to signing players and organizing transfers? Of course, those big clubs with big-money owners – such as Chelsea or Manchester City – don’t operate on anything like the same level as clubs in the lower leagues. Money talks, after all. The bigger purse your club has to spend, the better players it can sign. Few would argue with the basic marketplace ethics that take place in the transfer windows around the various European leagues even if their club isn’t as wealthy as their nearest rival. That said, it is entirely possible that it doesn’t always come down to the number of pounds, or euros, your club has in its bank account. Why?
According to some commentators in the German sports press, clubs like FC Bayern, Juventus and Real Madrid have been operating with a cosy arrangement of transferring players between themselves to the exclusion of others. The arrangement is said to have operated informally since 2014 and constitutes a breach of the rules, possibly European competition law, too. Many fans have noticed the number of players who move around within this triangle of clubs and have raised questions about the fairness of the alleged arrangement. Surely fans deserve better than this?
The Breakaway Impulse
According to Football Leaks, the website devoted to making revelations about some of the biggest teams in the continent, some European clubs are not at all loyal to the history of the leagues they play in. As reported in the German press, Bayern Munich had been trying to establish via a legal firm whether or not it could break away from the beloved Bundesliga in order to form a new league. What may horrify some of the club’s loyal fans even more is that Juventus, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Manchester United, Arsenal and AC Milan were all reported to be sounding out one another on forming a breakaway league called the European Super League.
Crucially, the reports stated that such a move would go outside of the usual governing body of football in Europe, UEFA, and would lead to even higher ticket prices. Consider then for the humble fan, the likely cost of attending an away fixture in such a league with all of the travel costs as well as that of the ticket price. For some, what was even more important with the prospect of a breakaway league was the shift away from tradition. Clubs entering the proposed league would, necessarily, not be able to compete in all of the domestic competitions that their fans know and love.
The Rich Clubs Don’t Feed Grassroots Football
In some ways, you can understand why big European clubs have their own affairs as the priority. After all, the successful ones are locked year on year in a competitive environment with one another. Yet many fans understand that a lack of funds and facilities at the grassroots level will inevitably strangle the sport. Where is the next generation of players going to come from if all the wealth in the sport is retained by those which can command the greatest incomes from TV deals and international sponsors? A good example of the issue can be seen in a recent transfer made by FC Barcelona.
The player in question was signed by the Catalan giant from Toulouse, just over the Pyrenees in France. Since Jean-Clair Todibo was signed by Barcelona on a free transfer, the club he played for will not receive a single penny for him. To be clear, there is no question that the giant club has acted in any way that is illegal. However, many fans think that it just isn’t right that Toulouse should receive nothing having helped to shape the career and build the skills which made Todibo such an attractive proposition in the first place. Toulouse’s president, Olivier Sadran, complained bitterly about the affair which he said was, “anything but glorious.” Many grassroots football fans agree.
The Lack of Investment in Facilities
It is fair to say that some football clubs have invested incredible sums of money into new stadia which should rightly be regarded as top-notch. Tottenham Hotspur’s ground at White Hart Lane in North London is expected to be among the best around when it opens. And yet, it is a building project that has significantly overrun already. In many cases, football stadia are either a good journey outside of the city they are supposed to be in or are crammed into a densely populated urban area which can scarcely accommodate them. Often in such circumstances, fans turning up – whether they are travelling with their team or are attending a home fixture – feel that the facilities are poor and that they are treated like cattle as the queue to get in and out.
Many of the most common fan complaints about football club facilities are long-standing. However, they are often not addressed or – when they are – are not addressed fully. Disabled facilities are often inadequate. Toilets are too few in number, especially for female fans. Food concessions tend to be overpriced and unsavoury. What galls so many fans is the fact that the price of a season ticket seems to go up with every season that passes and yet the stadium facilities seldom improve.
The Issue of Underperformance
Not every club can win. It is the very nature of sport that there are winners and losers. Fans know and accept this fundamental truth. Sometimes your team can come up against a superior one and lose and it feels like a victory, especially if your side puts up a committed performance with some stout defence. On the other hand, what fans hate is a lacklustre performance that shows that the players don’t have their heart in it. As fans, loving your team is part of the deal. For professionals, however, performing well in a team can often be an individual pursuit. The trouble is that far too often clubs put up with underperformance and boards sometimes mix up results with effort. It drives many fans mad!
Look at the case of Ousmane Dembélé of Borussia Dortmund who was signed by Barcelona in 2017. Because of some wrangling over the transfer fee, Dembélé felt justified on withdrawing his sporting prowess from his current employers and failed to turn up to training sessions. Spanish players have often gone one step further and threatened to strike in order to get their way, usually in disputes with the coach. Over the course of the 2018-19 season, the owners of Manchester United undoubtedly dithered whilst the first team continually put in poor performances which many put down to the management style of the coach, José Mourinho. Fans became increasingly frustrated with what was a fairly obvious power struggle between the board, the manager and the players. Since the manager was replaced by a caretaker, few Manchester United fans have had any complaints, however. Both on-field performances and results have altered dramatically. Perhaps that’s the most frustrating thing for fans. Just when we think we’ve had enough, something changes which draws us back in!