Why this matters
In the U.S. and Europe, soccer supporters are taking back control of their clubs to keep them pure of greed, violence and other social ills.
Earlier this year, NAC Breda, an old, proud, and well-supported club in the Netherlands, was set to change hands yet again. In the crowd of 36 potential bidders, the City Football Group appeared to have the inside track.
The Abu Dhabi-owned holding company was built around Manchester City F.C., winners of four of the last five Premier League titles. Beneath that flagship team, CFG had already gobbled up nine other, mostly medium-sized clubs on five continents. Now, it was coming for NAC, figuring that the cooperation agreement it had signed with the club a few years earlier, which sent a stream of young loanees from Manchester City’s books to Breda, would make for a smooth landing. They expected little resistance, just as most of their other acquisitions had come off with nary a hitch.
But NAC’s fans were appalled by the prospect of being subsumed into a multinational corporation of soccer affiliates – to say nothing of what they saw as the dirty money that would be running their club – and quickly mobilized.
As opposition to the takeover grew, the Breda Loco’s [sic], NAC’s supporters group, ran into an unexpected foe: a seemingly-coordinated Twitter campaign by inauthentic-sounding accounts with corny usernames that argued for the CFG takeover with an inexplicable zeal. The actual NAC fans were against the takeover because they felt that theirs was a historic club, a folkloric institution with 13,000 season ticket-holders, the fifth-most in the Netherlands, even though decades of mismanagement had cast them into the Dutch second tier. So within days, they went on the offensive and staged simultaneous protests at three CFG-owned clubs, hanging banners against the takeover:
STAY OUT OF OUR TERRITORY
NAC IS NOT A CITY GROUP STORY!
The protest lasted all of a minute and a half at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium before security took down their banner, but nevertheless went viral on social media and was picked up by several major English papers. It also had the effect of stunning the would-be buyers, who soon scurried off to buy Italian outfit Palermo instead. NAC fans had managed to resist the game’s seemingly inevitable march to total commercialization and consolidation, retaining, for now, its independence from the encroaching constellations of mutant mega-clubs, many of which are owned by Americans. “If all of the soccer world is going to look like just a few networks of clubs, we won’t let that happen without a fight,” says Leon Deckers, an elder of the Breda Loco’s, proudly adding that a group of local businessmen is buying the club instead.
“Your club gets stripped down and rebuilt,” Deckers says of membership in a network like CFG’s. “It loses all of its local flavor. Maybe that’s not as important for other clubs, but in Breda, NAC is rooted so deeply into its society, running out of every pore of the city and the region. If that doesn’t feel local any longer, you lose your unique selling point, you destroy the foundation. You become an affiliate of the great Manchester City, and that doesn’t serve NAC’s interests. We made clear to City, if you get involved in this, it’s going to be a very bad marriage. And nobody wants that.”
Revolution in Manchester
In its pursuit of NAC, the City Football Group collided with a kind of counter-culture emerging in some corners of the game, pushing back against soccer’s unchecked capitalism. At a time when the sport has been hollowed out by cynicism — symptomized by the failed-but-not-dead European Super League; a mid-season World Cup in a rich but very arguably unsuitable host nation; and clubs’ shameless association with gambling companies and cryptocurrency scams—some clubs, often spurred on by their fans, are refusing to assimilate. They are rethinking what a club is, how its ownership structure should work, and what its priorities ought to be. Under pressure from its supporters, Watford recently canceled a friendly with the Qatar national team over the country’s human rights record.
F.C. United of Manchester may have pioneered this push-back against the sport’s unquenchable commercialism.
In 2005, long before it became common, or even inevitable, for a foreign billionaire to own your Premier League team, the Floridian Glazer family — possessed of a portfolio of failing shopping malls, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and no apparent interest in soccer — completed a highly-leveraged hostile takeover of Manchester United. They followed their mall model, saddling the debt-free club with hundreds of billions of pounds in loans — liabilities that have barely shrunk as the Glazer family has siphoned money out of the club in spite of its enormous debt.
To one group of prescient fans, it was the final straw. They had been put off by the sanitizing of the matchday experience — a particular flashpoint was a mid-1990s stadium announcement that anybody who stood during the game would be ejected, disregarding a century of convention. They had also been driven away by United’s rather successful foray into the stock market in 1991, when it became just the second EPL club to float stock and made a killing in the process, setting a trend. So they broke off and formed a new team — same colors, similar badge, built on the city of Manchester’s crest with more or less the same name, rearranging the words.
“We were just sick to death of the money men in football dictating how we were to support our club,” says George Baker, a former Manchester United board member. “We knew that would be the case with regard to the Glazers. We knew that their business plan relied on essentially exploiting the fan base, exploiting the loyalty that they take for granted.
“They’re not just any other business that you can asset-strip, that you can sell off in order to make quick money,” Baker says of soccer teams. “These are institutions that have generations of love and support. It’s our belief at F.C. United of Manchester that football clubs should be community assets — they shouldn’t be businesses. Primarily, they exist for their supporters and they’re the ones who should be in control.”
So F.C. United styled itself not as a replacement but an alternative. Most of its fans still root for Man U, they just refuse to go to the games or enrich the Glazers in any other way, attending F.C. United matches instead. The new club started out in the 10th tier on the English pyramid and made three straight promotions. It remains in the seventh tier, where it is about to embark on its 18th season (and as the only English club to defend a European title, by the way, after claiming last year’s Fenix Trophy). It built its own stadium, in the very neighborhood where the original Manchester United began before moving way across town. F.C. United of Manchester, then, sits much closer to the roots of the original club than Man U does, both physically and spiritually.
While Man U is a household brand that fills its 74,000-seat Old Trafford and goes on global tours to keep its dozens of sponsors happy, F.C. United has about 3,000 club members, two-thirds of whom regularly attend games — adding up to colossal attendance numbers at that level. The new club has active fan branches in Shanghai and Ukraine. It even has a good number of American fans, ironically. The announcement of the ill-fated European Super League brought in scores of new fans and merch sales, which seems to happen whenever the game’s elite gets its grubby hand caught in the cookie jar again.
F.C. United, in that sense, tries to be everything that Man U is not: completely fan-owned, completely fan-controlled, existing purely in the service of its fans and its community. And it fetes these facts in its many terrace chants sneering at the old club:
His name is Malcolm Glazer, he thinks he's rather flash.
He tried to buy a football team but didn't have the cash.
He borrowed lots of money, he made the fans distraught,
But we're F.C. United and we won't be f***ing bought.
But keeping the project going and true to its philosophy requires a constant triangulation of principles and reality. The club sells merchandise and relies on sponsorship to pay the bills. Yet some of its members would prefer that it didn’t, because this slippery slope might send F.C. hurtling right back to the place where Man U wound up. And when the club built its own stadium, which was necessary to safeguard its future, it borrowed money from its own fans, thus creating a very modern soccer problem: managing debt.
When, a few years ago, the F.C. board was found to have obfuscated the club’s finances, there was a revolt — mass resignations and new elections — because that was the kind of thing that would happen at Man U.
“Permanent revolution is essentially mandatory in these situations,” Baker says.
The Conscience of German Soccer
F.C. St. Pauli's revolution has been running for three decades. Until the late 1980s, St. Pauli, of Germany’s second division, was not a club particularly associated with the working class — to the contrary, it bordered on the bourgeois. Nor did it have much of a political slant. But like the rest of German soccer, its stands had been infiltrated by a neo-Nazi element at a time when fascist sentiment was sweeping through Europe anew. Right-wing leaders recruited new members among young, male soccer fans already inclined toward violence.
Soon enough, a neo-Nazi mob tried to flush out a domestic left-wing terrorist group believed to be hiding out in the St. Pauli quarter of Hamburg — where The Beatles once toiled anonymously. In response, progressives rallied to the area to demonstrate against the fascists. Eventually, these anti-fascists ventured into the club’s Millerntor stadium. A punk squatter brought in a skull-and-bones flag, commonly associated with the city’s docks and St. Pauli’s squatter scene. It became iconic: St. Pauli was nicknamed the “Pirates of the league” and also, the “Brothel of the league” for its red-light district. And thus it became the team of punks, squatters, students, hippies, and anarchists. Two decades ago, the club had a cross-dressing president. And together, they remade the club as a left-wing beacon that styled itself as the conscience of German soccer.
Today, there is a short set of rules stenciled onto the side of the stands at the shabby but beloved Millerntor.
No place for:
A banner held up inside the stadium drives home the message: Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here. Another reads: Never again fascism! Never again war! Never again the Third Division!
At the Millerntor, tribalism is frowned upon and the opposing team’s club song is played in order to make it feel welcome. There is no big brouhaha over player introductions or goal celebrations through the PA system, no halftime entertainment. The fans are left to create their own energy and atmosphere.
But, counterintuitively, occupying this anti-corporatist niche has also bankrolled the club’s resurrection from the brink of bankruptcy. Last season, they faded late but had led the league for most of the campaign before missing out on promotion back to the top-tier Bundesliga.
Martin Drust, who runs the club’s marketing arm, sees a great irony in all of this. “We are very commercial. We’ve commercialized the anti-commercial [logo] we have, the skull and bones,” he says, and sure enough, you can get the St. Pauli skull and bones on a rubber bath duckie. “This symbol, which stands for fan culture and authenticity — we put so much into our branding that people know what it’s about. Because the people know, we put the money in professional football to provide a good team which plays successful football. Because of this, our values have a good stage. Most of the people can agree on this kind of hypocrisy that is within the club.”
The bargain the club has struck, Drust argues, is to monetize its image so that it might boost its belief system. “Football is our way of fighting for ideas and values to make the world a better place,” he says. “We are a community of values. We have one common goal: to be as successful on the field as we can be to make these values visible. The best thing that can happen to our values is if we win the Champions League. But our values give us some limitations of what is possible. Our motto is ‘A different kind of football is possible.’ We really believe that it’s possible to be part of this industry, and to know all of the bad things about this industry, but to be successful, to play professional football — minimum second Bundesliga — without doing all these kinds of [hyper-commercialized] things. We believe that you don’t have to do all these kinds of sacrifices.”
F.C. St. Pauli fans own 100 percent of the club, ensuring that those dreaded sacrifices are politically untenable. St. Pauli will never sell out. “It’s unimaginable,” Drust says. “It’s unthinkable. It would destroy this biotope. Maybe you could then sell the image, the logo, but you would kill it. We would rather die. If it’s like that, then it ends here.”
‘A Club that Oozes Detroit’
Detroit City F.C. thinks that its city shouldn’t have to be asked to sacrifice either.
The club didn’t start as a club at all. It began as an adult league fielding a team from each neighborhood, in hopes of building community. Before long, the league had more than 1,000 players and a fourth-division, all-amateur NPSL team issued from it. DCFC sprung forth less out of a desire to compete, much less make money, than as a dynamo of civic pride in a beleaguered city. It grew so popular — the club currently has about 2,000 season ticket-holders and draws just under 6,000 fans to their home games in the second-tier USL Championship that it could turn professional. And when it outgrew its high school stadium, the club, unlike so many American sports franchises, didn’t ask for money from Detroit but instead crowdfunded $750,000 from its fans, which it repaid ahead of schedule. It used the money to renovate a dilapidated, 80-year-old stadium in the downtown enclave of Hamtramck, creating the only green space in Michigan’s most densely-populated community — a working class, immigrant neighborhood. Local kids now play on the field whenever the team isn’t using it, probably making it America’s only professional sports stadium that’s open for public use.
Detroit City F.C. was conceived to act in the best interests of Detroit, not the other way around. Its founders figured that another cut-and-paste Major League Soccer team, folded into the portfolio of sports holdings of some billionaire, didn’t make any sense for their city, which had finally gathered momentum in its tortuous economic recovery. So when a pair of such billionaires tried to bring an MLS team to one of the nation’s largest markets, DCFC fans openly questioned the wisdom of the scheme — which pivoted on an expensive plan to develop a downtown area around a new stadium, of course. MLS has yet to come to Detroit.
“The way we succeed, being sustainable and something that is around for generations and means something to people, is by being authentic,” says Sean Mann, DCFC’s CEO. “And that’s not something you can [workshop], that consultants can tell you how to be. It has to be a reflection of your place in your community and understanding and reflecting that community. For us, it’s, ‘How do we create a club that oozes Detroit?’”
For starters, that means not being a burden on a city that has far bigger headaches than building a soccer facility. In its decade of existence, the club has never taken local tax dollars or otherwise imposed on the city’s finances — though it did take some federal assistance to help its small business through the pandemic. Instead, it has created something that adds value to the city. Its stadium is owned by a local school district, not the club, and Mann figures they have spent another couple million dollars rehabbing it since the crowdfunding campaign.
The stadium has, in fact, become something of an anchor in revitalizing its abutting area. Match days drive business to surrounding bars and restaurants. One of the last standing Negro League baseball stadiums next door was just rehabbed as well. The club hopes to create a park district around those two stadiums.
People have told Mann the club — which also has 2,000 local children in its youth system — inspired them to move into the city from the suburbs, or to come into the city more often to actually explore neighborhoods and go to bars and restaurants around games, rather than just shuttle in and out from the suburbs the way they might to go see one of the city’s major league teams. Mann and his partners all live in the city, which is one of the most segregated in the country, and send their kids to public schools there.
DCFC is organic, homegrown. It’s of a new Detroit, by Detroit, mirroring the city’s revival. The club’s sponsors are mostly local businesses. Every year, it releases a third jersey for its charity game, benefiting a local cause.
“That’s core to what we’re doing, which is to create something that people can care about,” Mann says. “I think that’s something that’s lacking in the big world of sports these days. Rivalries change and players change and so much of the gameday experience is sterile and cookie-cutter from one state to another. We’re trying to do something that’s unique.”
The club’s motto is “Passion for our city. Passion for the game.” Note that the city part comes first.
In his 1996 book "In Black & White," Global Sport Institute founding CEO Kenneth L. Shropshire wrote that "the selection of the right person for a position in sports, both on and off the field of play, is extraordinarily subjective." That book prescribed reforms across levers of society to increase the representation of Black leaders in sport.
This issue continues Shropshire's exploration, with a particular interest in how those in power have shaped progress when it comes to diversity, for better and worse.