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THE issue of football club ownership is the undercurrent to many of the game’s recent ongoing problems.
Take, for example, a small 10-mile radius around Manchester where ownership is regularly the main issue and not just an underlying one.
135-year-old Bury FC are hanging by a thread after the irresponsible actions of a couple of individuals masquerading as owners, and are heading for liquidation after being expelled from the Football League.
Manchester United fans were so disillusioned by the actions of the Glazer family, who are draining the club’s finances and, apparently, footballing prestige, that some started a separate club, FC United of Manchester, while the rest protest regularly at games.
Oldham Athletic owner Abdallah Lemsagam is on record saying: “If I am not here, maybe the club does not exist any more.”
Uefa recently ruled that Manchester City’s owners overstated sponsorship revenue in their accounts in an attempt to circumvent financial fair play regulations, and owners of League Two side Salford City are already worried about such sanctions further down the line as they spend big to fast-track the team to the top.
These examples come from just one small region of one small country, but there are similar issues affecting football clubs around the world.
However the problems a club have with their owners manifest themselves, supporters are invariably the ones left to pick up the pieces when things go wrong.
If the fans are the ones who are left to rebuild a club, or protest continuously and tirelessly just to keep it afloat and maintain some semblance of what it originally stood for, this suggests the only group who can be trusted with running a club are those supporters themselves.
The aforementioned FC United are owned by supporters and set up as a community benefit society. Such an organisation is set up not to make profit for a handful of owners but, as the name suggests, to benefit the community in which it resides.
Another club regularly featured in these pages, City of Liverpool FC, are set up in the same way.
“This belongs to the people who come to games, and to the wider community as well,” City of Liverpool’s deputy chairman Peter Furmedge told the Morning Star in 2018.
“It’s not about the capitalist investment model, it is more about common purpose, common ownership, common wealth. The benefits that accrue are shared between all of us.”
Last year, HFC Falke, a similarly minded and similarly organised club from Hamburg, Germany, attended City of Liverpool’s Tresstival event which celebrated the work of Robert Tressell and his socialist novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.
“I think our basics are the same,” HFC Falke president Tamara Dwenger tells the Morning Star.
”Both clubs would like to be a home for people who believe in fan-owned football. Football is nothing without fans. The game on the pitch is amazing but without us it is nothing.
“A lot of people who follow clubs in the top leagues are becoming disillusioned: high prices for tickets, no chance to drink a beer or see your team playing. Simple things.”
Representatives of HFC Falke, including Dwenger and the club’s press officer Philipp Markhardt, regularly attend matches at similar teams around Europe and have forged relationships with other clubs including City of Liverpool, FC United and Belgian fan-owned club YB SK Beveren.
The welcome they receive when visiting these clubs, and vice-versa, reflects the nature of these fan-owned and community-oriented football teams.
“Philipp and I had an amazing day in Liverpool,” adds Dwenger. “We felt very welcome when we entered the ‘stadium.’
“I asked several people why they are here supporting City of Liverpool and the answers were all similar: ‘I have a good feeling here, having a good time with my friends and family and supporting a club where it is about fans and not about the money.’ This is very similar to us.”
It won’t be long before supporter-owned clubs are regularly appearing at the top level of football around the world and, should clubs around them collapse when funding is pulled or billionaire owners find another hobby, these will be the teams ready to take their place.
This is already the case in Germany where a handful of Bundesliga clubs are still owned entirely by their members.
For others, the 50+1 rule means members always own at least 51 per cent of the shares in a club, preventing outside investors becoming majority shareholders.
There are exceptions, though. Bayer Leverkusen are owned by a pharmaceutical company and Wolfsburg by Volkswagen.
This is due to the way the clubs were formed as works teams, and in order to accommodate these historical sides, owners who have been at the club for more than 20 years could apply for an exemption to the rule.
RB Leipzig, meanwhile, have found an unofficial way around the rule by making sure their members are Red Bull employees and by charging high membership fees for others.
“There are still a few clubs which belong 100 per cent to their members, like Schalke 04, SC Freiburg and Union Berlin — the same as us,” adds Dwenger.
“But this form of ownership is not a guarantee that everything goes well. It is all about the members, their voice and vote.”
Supporters of historic German Bundesliga side Hamburger SV (often known as HSV or Hamburg) have witnessed first hand this lack of guarantee in recent years.
HFC Falke was founded in 2014 after HSV members voted to relinquish some of their shares to outside investment, dropping the share owned by the members to 75 per cent and becoming closer to a 50+1 club.
Rather than be a part of a club which would now partly be run by outside investors, a group of disillusioned supporters formed HFC Falke.
“We asked ourselves: what are we going to do now?” Dwenger recalls.
“Are we going to accept this and keep on fighting against this commercialisation of the game we love?
“We said no and decided to found our own club, doing things differently. We decided to fight for a better form of football, a football which is by the members for the members.
“After nearly six years we have 350 members, two teams and we still believe in our idea.”
Meanwhile, back at Hamburg the sale of those shares was supposed to help the six-time German champions and 1983 European Cup winners return to their glory days, both domestically and in Europe, but just six years after this change in ownership structure they were relegated from the Bundesliga for the first time in their history.
Fan-owned clubs are showing that there is an alternative. These clubs might not rise up the divisions as quickly as Salford City, or propel themselves to a clean sweep of domestic trophies like Manchester City, but neither will they fall as far as some unfortunate clubs have at the hands of irresponsible, apathetic owners.
Dwenger summarises that “the goal is to support each other, share stories, visit and play friendlies against each other, having a good time and show by example that there is an alternative — fan-owned football.”
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