Independent European Sports Review

Posted on July 12th, 2005 in Football, Published Writing

Written for Supporters Direct’s quarterly magazine in 2006, on the publication of the Independent European Sports’ Review, a report examining the issues affecting European football (sport was added to the title at the last moment as it recognised that most of the recommendations affecting football would need to be applied sport-wide).

The reaction of the majority of the British press to the Independent European Football Review published in late May might not have surprised anyone for its virulent euro-scepticism, but it would have surprised anyone who had actually read the report. It was, The Sun assured us, part of a Brussels land grab, which would penalise success, and generally bring about the end of western civilisation. Or maybe just threaten Sky’s profits, which may be the same thing for them.

The ‘Up Yours Delors’ treatment was at odds with what the report actually said. The thrust was that the EU should have nothing to do with the game, save for enabling UEFA to get on with running football with a strong legal framework that allows it to govern in the interests of sport, not business, which is far from a power grab by power-crazed eurocrats.

The Review was an initiative of the Sports Ministers of the five biggest football-playing countries in the European Union (UK, Italy, Germany, France and Spain) under the authority of the UK Presidency of the EU, and looked at a whole range of issues that have been kicked around for some years now, ranging to the gap between clubs within countries, between countries, player salary caps, international call-ups and the role of governing bodies.

The report has to be considered against the backdrop of the ongoing contest for the control of European football. It’s been seen as a battle between the big clubs and UEFA. In that light, to echo Norwegian commentator Bjørge_Lillelien, ‘David Dein, David Gill, Luciano Moggi, Karl-Heinz Rummenige, Adriano Galliani your boys took one hell of a beating!’

As easy as it is to characterise in such stark terms, there is a more profound battle beneath the quotes and soundbites of the power struggles within European football. The real struggle is a political and philosophical one, about what kind of sport football will be.

Does it follow a more Americanised model of closed leagues, guaranteed income for the lucky few and a impermeable separation between the elite and the rest, or does it have a wider purpose in society, played as well as watched, with a pyramid structure in which teams rise and fall?

That vision has to be seen in context of a wider debate about the role of business and the state in the 21st Century. Commentators on economics and politics have written about the competing visions between the European social-model and American corporate vision, and the arguments underlying that debate can be found in football too.

Whilst the G14 club are see as the standard bearers of the latter, it is a view that implicitly finds favour beyond their numbers. Against that though, UEFA’s steadfast defence of the wider model of football has been enthusiastically endorsed by the Review.

Documents produced for a pan-European audience are often heavy of platitudes and light on specifics, still less emphatic pronouncements, so the tone of much of the report. Is a welcome surprise. It’s not bullish by any means, but it is decisive and in a series of detailed paragraphs, it utterly destroys the arguments made by the G14 and others who would wish to join it.

It emphatically endorses UEFA as the organisation who should run European Football, and calls upon the EU to come to a firm understanding that, provided UEFA ensures it meets appropriate standards in ensuring its decisions are arrived at properly, democratically and transparently, it is entirely consistent to allow it to make decisions on the basis of what is best for sport, if that conflicts with strict application of the Treaty Law in certain areas.

The Review calls for ‘legal certainty’, which is code for something which stops clubs, players and associations threatening to take people to Court if they don’t like decisions made against them. It says that UEFA should be given the backing to set frameworks and to empower National Associations to run the game in their respective territories. It gives a green light for a variety of current initiatives and proposed development such as Home-grown player initiatives, salary caps, international call-ups, club licensing and many others that have been called into question by the larger clubs as a restriction on their freedom.

The Trust movement gets a big boost too, with our work at SD being strongly praised. SD and the FSF gave evidence to the review and attended the public hearing in Brussels, and that paid off. The report states that ‘properly constituted supporter involvement will help to contribute to improved governance and financial stability (as well as other benefits) and, as such, it would be worthwhile to examine the feasibility of rolling out the Supporters Direct framework on a European level’.

Given that many countries have member-owned clubs, they think this work could include revitalising structures at clubs where a distance between clubs and fans has taken hold despite the structures, rather than because of them. They also call upon UEFA to find a way to bring fans into its decisions-making and consultation structures, so the voice of fans across the continent can be part of the process, as is the voice of the clubs and the players.

The report concludes that ‘it is time to act’. After a series of reports in the UK that have run aground against the combination of inertia, apathy and strong opposition from the biggest clubs, the hope is that this time –more than any other time, this time – the recommendations are acted upon. If they are, the vision for football we share in the trust movement and the potential for pushing our movement forward will take a giant step forward.

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