Football is slowly but surely waking up to the implications of UEFA’s new club licensing requirements, to be implemented from 2012/13. The initial focus has been on the need for football to reign in its debts as, by 2018, clubs will need to look like something approaching a sustainable business.
Failure to meet UEFA’s criteria could see some of Europe’s biggest clubs miss out on the financial prop that is the Champions League windfall. Many questions have been asked over how Europe’s elite will meet their financial fair play obligations and, amid this speculation, a significant change has slipped by.
Under Article 35 of the new UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations clubs must appoint a Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO), with the aim of ensuring better communication between club and fans, from the start of the 2012/13 season.
The concept of the SLO being mandatory for clubs competing in European competition is a direct result of a lot of hard work from our friends at Supporters Direct (SD). SD convened and sat on an expert group which featured SLOs from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Portugal, and Spain. Representatives from Football Supporters Europe, who the FSF is affiliated to, were also involved.
SLOs have backing at the very highest echelons of European football. In the foreword to UEFA’s SLO handbook UEFA President Michel Platini says: “Supporters are the lifeblood at the very heart of professional football. We believe [SLOs] will prove to be a significant step in ensuring better communication between clubs and their supporters. Over time, the SLO requirement will become an important and integral part of the club football landscape.”
The FSF caught up with Antonia Hagemann, Head of European Development at SD, who was instrumental in working with UEFA on the introduction of SLOs.
The FSF: Hi Antonia, thanks for your time. Can you explain a little more about the concept of Supporter Liaison Officers?
Antonia: An SLO is someone who builds bridges between clubs and fans. Clubs often don’t even know who fans are or what they really think thanks to a lack of knowledge or communication between the two groups. We believe SLOs can help establish real, constructive dialogue between fans and clubs.
Do any clubs on the continent employ people in this role?
The German SLO model has been in place for more than 20 years, it works extremely well, and the aim is to spread this across Europe. We hope this is the form that clubs agree on and use as a model. It’s not just about what happens at the games or at stadiums. It should be a daily job, open to applications from fans, and the person should have a level of independence and proper support with an office and funding.
They appear throughout the leagues in Germany, not only the Bundesliga, but tiers two and three. Even the semi-pros have it. Austria also has them although they’re not necessarily all paid. Other clubs such as Slovan Liberec in the Czech Republic and Brondby in Denmark employ SLOs based on our recommendations, although unfortunately Brondby have let theirs go due to cut backs. In comparison Arminia Bielefeld in Germany were relegated twice in two years and kept their two SLOs, so important do they see them.
What would that day-to-day role involve?
They need to be able to communicate what really p****s off fans and help resolve those tensions. They should be involved with security and police meetings too. At present clubs meet with police pre-game and we think SLOs could make a real contribution to this on behalf of fans, giving our perspective on things. They should have regular meetings with security officials but if they’re pinned down only to discussing violence or hooliganism issues it just doesn’t work. It needs to be about general fan issues and communication as well as prevention of hooliganism.
And how might it work on matchdays?
On matchdays the away SLO will travel to the game with the fans and be on hand should any problems arise. He or she will check whether there are any problems getting in the ground and mediate if necessary. Home SLOs will liaise with their colleagues from the visting club to make sure everything is OK and offer assistance if needed. In Germany most SLOs now take part in a concourse meeting with police and stewards and their opposite numbers about 45 minutes before kick-off to establish whether everything is running smoothly.
Much will depend on how effective the SLO has worked during the week. If everything has been sorted, he or she can usually sit back and enjoy the match! Nevertheless they need to keep their eyes and ears open just in case. After the game the away SLO will monitor the situation for fans leaving the stadium and again intervene if a problem arises.
How should the job be advertised – is it something that anyone can apply for?
The jobs need to be tailored to set different situations in different places – a one-size fits all model doesn’t work. It needs to be allowed to develop in its own way at each club. But it needs to be someone fans feel is able to represent their case too. If the person is someone who comes from fans then the success rate is high. The exact person might vary from club to club, some smaller clubs have volunteers. The most important thing, however, is that the person chosen has crediblity with everyone concerned, i.e. the fans, the club management, the police, stewards, etc.
It doesn’t have to be an elected position but it shouldn’t be someone who is seen as being a representative of the club. A security officer, for example, won’t work. We know many European clubs still aren’t familiar with the concept but we hope to educate people.
How long have you been working on this?
It’s been a long process since we started but we’ve had so much support from fans. We first started talking to UEFA five years ago and over the years have since engaged more and more supporters too. At a Football Supporters Europe workshop in Hamburg a few years ago we first decided to propose this option. There was agreement that it was the most important thing which could be driven by fans.
How do clubs view things when the fans turn against the club?
On the continent the experience varies, some have very close relationship but that can change if fans suddenly turn on a CEO or something. But that anger can be channelled through a SLO. For example at Schalke 04 the club decided they needed to put ticket prices up which the fans were unhappy with.
The club met with fans and explained that they could freeze prices now but would have to increase them in two or three years time if they did that. The fans also had their say and, as a result, didn’t criticise when the rise was implemented because of the consultation process. [Adult tickets at Schalke 04 start at €15 – another example of what can be achieved when fans make their voices heard.]
Thanks very much for your time Antonia.
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