Back to basics

As supporter initiatives gain popularity across Europe, plans are afoot for one of Italy's biggest clubs. Vanda Wilcox explains

Not a season goes by in Italy without a handful of clubs going bust, and a big name or a glorious history are no protection, as Napoli, Parma and Fiorentina can all testify. Serie A is struggling to retain players and prestige in the face of increasing Spanish and English competition and debts are growing out of control. Now fans are trying to organise a new model of ownership, azionariato popolare (popular shareholding) – an Italian version of supporters’ trusts. Assistance has already been offered by Supporters Direct Europe, the UEFA-funded group which aims to promote good governance and sustainability in clubs across Europe.

Currently all eyes are on Roma, where on February 22 lifelong fan Walter Campanile launched a project to establish a trust, with the aim of buying shares in the club. Roma balance their books but have debts of over €300 million (£272m), run up not by the club but by their parent company Italpetroli, which has defaulted on a number of repayments. The main creditors, Unicredit bank, have started pressurising Italpetroli’s owners, the Sensi family, to sell off some assets – perhaps starting with the club. Fans’ patience is wearing thin and there is little confidence in the current board (full of Sensi family members).

Campanile, an air-traffic controller in his day job, hopes that a fresh approach could bring more transparency, financial stability and better day-to-day running of the club. He believes that “football has no future if it doesn’t move away from this archaic and anachronistic financial feudalism. To run a club as a rich man’s toy is a blind alley.” Although he emphasises that his project is “pro-Roma, not anti-Sensi”, it is clear that frustration with the owners is at the basis of popular support for the idea.

While fan ownership is not a new idea to them, Italian supporters retain a deep-seated conviction that their country is uniquely problematic and so “it could never work here”. They cite difficulties such as the complexity of financial and political interests in the game, the sheer size of the debts involved and, above all, the divide between fans’ groups and the ultras movement, who have traditionally regarded one another with mutual hostility.

Campanile aims to overcome these problems by incorporating as wide a range of fans as possible, even tapping in to Roma’s international fanbase and giving overseas supporters a chance to participate in the life of the club. The AS Roma Trust will be launched on April 21 with a “constitutional charter” signed by leaders of the official supporters’ groups as well as by leaders of the main ultra groups. High-profile former players and celebrity fans are also being invited on board in the hope of breaking down divides and ending mutual suspicion.

But can it really work? Antonia Hagemann of Supporters Direct Europe says: “The trust movement in England or fan ownership initiatives in other European countries all had to start somewhere. The question shouldn’t be whether this could work in Italy but rather why shouldn’t it?” Perhaps the only uniquely Italian problem – and one which affects only a tiny minority of clubs in the south – is the connection with organised crime. If your club is in the hands of the local mafia as some (allegedly) are, chances are they won’t be too amenable to you setting up a supporters’ trust and trying to buy them out.

For the most part the problems facing fans are fairly similar across Europe, and Hagemann suggests: “We should focus on what fans who want to have a say in the running of their clubs have in common and how we can help each other to achieve some level of ownership.” Sergio Mutolo of lower league website observes that fan ownership could be a vital part of reviving Italian football in the face of plummeting attendances and the ongoing recession. The real battle will be persuading fans that this is a viable solution and worth the effort involved.

Campanile, who attended the recent meeting of supporters’ trust representatives at the European Parliament, hopes to benefit from the experiences of similar movements elsewhere: “We have studied a variety of statutes and obviously every Italian fan aspires to the model of Barcelona. But achieving this will require a long process… we are looking at starting out like the trusts at Hamburg and Arsenal and ultimately trying to find our own approach.”

Accountability and democracy are the most significant aspects of supporter ownership in the Italian game. Traditionally calcio has been a paternalistic, strictly hierarchical system where fans’ views were rarely heard – unless they resorted to violence or public demonstrations. Campanile’s vision for the future is revolutionary: “In ten years’ time I would like to see a modern, competitive Roma, a Roma run by and for the people, a democratic Roma.”

From WSC 278 April 2010