Against Modern Football, the Controversial Movement to Reclaim a Sport from Capitalism Gone Mad
Banishing the worst of soccer's fans from stadiums has been a double-edged sword that Against Modern Football wishes to turn against those ruling the sport.
"Do you find yourself becoming increasingly disgruntled and annoyed by the shape of modern football?
Are you sick of what was once the working man's game being systematically turned into a business, with a blatant disregard for the fans who formed the traditions that made it so great?
STAND is a new fanzine representing British football fans who are sick of the modern game and are willing to do something about it."
The Against Modern Football movement was hardly new, but nobody had captured its essence and spirit so neatly. When the first issue of STAND Against Modern Football went on sale in the summer of 2012, the movement was merely a disjointed cri de coeur from the game's old-school fans, who now finally had a voice after a decade of cacophonous noise.
For all that time, Against Modern Football had been sort of amorphous, more of an unwieldy blob of discontent than a formal organization. Sometimes it was co-opted by hooligans in defiance of the rules and regulations designed to curb their activities, but other than a convoluted academic paper, it was ill-defined. It was so vague, in fact, that a rumor spread about a mythical but secret rulebook.
"There's nothing you can belong to," explains Bill Biss, the editor of STAND-also a British term for a section of stadium seating. "It's more of a feeling than a cohesive movement. I think it's mainly a term that's used as a badge of honor by protest groups and fans of various clubs and it's definitely a fashionable term to throw around. You identity with being AMF but there's nothing to sign up."
Biss's publication, then, is a "fanzine that co-opted the term from Europe on formation and attempts to collect writing that loosely fits under a banner of hating, or at least moaning about the modern game." The first issue circulated 1,000 copies, which sold out almost instantly.
This bizarre undertaking can feel like something of a spasm against modernity, a backlash to what is considered the sport's growth into a more palatable product. As such, AMF can feel like a sort of soccer equivalent to the Flat Earth Society, or denying that climate change is man-made in the 21st century. STAND, in fact, felt the need to address this on its website. "We are not Amish," it says on the about page. "We like modern technology."
Against Modern Football spawned in continental Europe just after the turn of the millennium. A YouTube video—accompanied, of course, by a techno track, because all soccer videos on YouTube have to be accompanied by techno tracks by law—captures a series of banners held aloft by tifosi¸ Italian soccer fans, known to have a soft spot for violence and a profound mistrust of authority. "No al calcio moderno," read most of the banners. "No to modern soccer."
Broadly speaking, the objective of this movement is to take soccer back from the economic forces that have undeniably hijacked it. For that to make sense, you have to understand where soccer came from. Some professional European clubs are more than a century old and were started by friends or in social clubs and factories. They entered amateur leagues, and those that were successful gradually professionalized. They weren't for-profit franchises that bought into highly-controlled, for-profit leagues, like in American sports. In soccer, the amateur spirit endures.
But last year alone, the 10 richest soccer clubs in Europe conspired to generate about $5 billion in revenues. Just 16 years ago, the 10 richest European teams combined to earn a mere $855 million, underscoring the dogged monetization of an erstwhile amateur endeavor by squeezing every last penny out of fans and TV viewers. These days, soccer clubs are prone to leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers. Some are the playthings of billionaire oligarchs. Others trade publicly in the stock market. Almost all have shareholders to answer to.
As the product was commoditized, the viewing experience was sanitized in an attempt to appeal to the (more moneyed?) mainstream. Standing-only sections have been abolished in most countries and hardcore fans banished. In the last decade or two, ticket prices have risen tenfold in most leagues—even when adjusted for inflation—pricing out the sport's working-and middle-class base. Many argue the atmosphere has suffered.
"I just don't like modern football too much," says Radoslaw Rzeznikiewicz, a Polish Against Modern Football sympathizer and Legia Warsaw fan, who claims he's not an ultra but chronicles ultra activity on his Twitter account, @PolishHopper. "I don't like new stadiums. I travel a lot across Europe to see football and I always prefer a game in old fashion stadiums when you can smell the tradition there. New stadiums look very similar to each other and they often look like shopping malls."
He speaks of the "symptoms of modern football" and bemoans the systematic rooting out of the ultras. In Poland, he says, politicians demonized soccer fans to "cover all the political scandals and all wrong economy indicators.
"So they started to ban football fans for everything," he adds. "Ultras were treated like very dangerous criminals."
It's been to the detriment of the game-day experience, Rzeznikiewicz argues. "Football is not the theatre," he says. "Reasonable hatred in football gives the best emotions."
It isn't the theatre. But ridding itself of all that hatred, of the skinheads and flares and generally threatening mood in roiling cauldrons, has served the sport's bottom line very well. In the 1980s it would have been unthinkable to bring your family to an English stadium. Today, you can do so safely, sitting in the midst of respectable businessmen. Now, in fact, it seems Barcelona's Nou Camp, once the stronghold of its hardcore, is filled mostly with tourists for any given game. Families and businessmen and tourists tend to leave more money behind. This, ultimately, is the central conflict that gave rise to Against Modern Football. When gains were made to further commercialization and overall safety, something of the sport's smell and feel was lost for its original demographic base. That's when websites like SupportersNotCustomers.com began popping up.
In its mission statement, Dutch Against Modern Football blog In De Hekken—which translates to "In The Fences"—says what it wants is simple: "To drink a beer [which isn't allowed in most stadiums], to take the train to an away game without a ticket [away fans have to travel as a group under tight police supervision], to hang in the fences [also not allowed], to get a little crazy and to support your club passionately; that was the real supporter's life."
By and large, digesting the various manifestos (such as this one by the fans of MFK Kosice in Slovakia) suggests the movement wants ticket prices reduced; alcohol once again allowed at games; standing sections reintroduced; clubs owned by fans—or for fans to at least have a voice in club matters; tradition respected and conserved; and the ultras left alone.
"We got a lot of criticism for somehow wanting a return to the dark days of hooliganism and racism, even though we've always said we're not about that," says Biss, adding that the magazine dropped the "Against Modern Football" subtitle from its cover for the sixth issue because of the backlash against that motto. "They also seem to think that our aims are too grand. Football is such a big part of everyday culture that it's easy to dismiss AMF as a football hipster fashion, but really, when you speak to most fans, they would actually agree with a lot of what it's supposed to be about."
At its core, there is indeed something to be said for the movement's objectives, vague as they may sometimes be, in a time when the overreach of soccer ownership groups can be stunning. Cardiff City, nicknamed the Bluebirds, played in blue for 104 years until its new Malaysian billionaire owner, Vincent Tan, decided to "rebrand the club" and changed its color to red in 2012. In January, Tan finally bowed to fan pressure and changed the color back to blue after consulting his mother.
Last season, Coventry City moved to a different stadium, in a different town an hour's drive away, when its ownership had a dispute over the venue's rent. But that isn't nearly as egregious as what happened to Wimbledon F.C. Founded in 1889 and nicknamed The Dons, the club had always played in the eponymous neighborhood of London. But in 2003, after ownership balked at desperately needed renovations for its old stadium and failed to find a site for a new venue in its area, the club moved to Milton Keynes, a soulless new city developed 56 miles away, and was renamed the Milton Keynes Dons. Moving a club is totally unheard of in Europe. And rather than go along with it, the Wimbledon fans simply founded A.F.C. Wimbledon and started over. Today, having rebuilt their beloved club from the ground up, Wimbledon plays in the fourth tier of English professional soccer, just one level below the Dons.
It goes on: Malcolm Glazer and his sons, who are American mall moguls and owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bought Manchester United F.C. by leveraging the club against the debts they had incurred to buy it in 2005. By taking on more than a billion dollars in liabilities, they have drained hundreds of millions from the club to service that debt. Some fans found this so unpalatable that they founded F.C. United of Manchester, which is now a semi-pro team.
A more common reaction by fans to ownerships they consider too intrusive is to buy a stake in their club. This works well in Spain, where Barcelona and Real Madrid are wholly owned by their season ticket-holders, who elect a club president. In Germany, by law, the fans must own 50 percent plus one share of their teams. Unsurprisingly, season tickets are affordable and relationships between club and fan are generally good there.
Compare that to Rangers F.C. of Glasgow, Scotland, a club so badly mismanaged that it was forced to leave the Scottish Premier League, which it had dominated along with arch-rivals Celtic for decades, and start over in the fourth tier. In response, its fans started the Ranger Supporters Trust, a group trying to obtain as large an ownership share of the club as possible. Today, they get a say in how the club is run and claim that they recently blocked the board from using the club's stadium as collateral for a loan. "Supporters trusts give fans who feel they are being ignored a platform to voice their concerns," says Derek Johnston of the Rangers Supporters Trust. "The RST look to poll our members prior to all annual general meetings in Rangers FC. This allows our members to voice their thoughts on each resolution in a democratic manner."
For a sense of how that can work out, consider Portsmouth F.C., which was run into bankruptcy twice over by ownership before its supporters trust bought the club outright in April 2013. By September 2014, the club was debt-free.
Fans struggling against the corporatization of their sport, so moved by unheard complaints, have known astonishing success. And that's ultimately what Against Modern Football is about: recapturing control of the sport and its clubs for the fans. If the various supporters groups and trusts aren't formally associated with this ethereal movement, they are very much of a mind.
Today, a Fan Action Network is being formed by STAND and other groups. It will have "grander objectives," according to Biss.
It will seek to continue to reverse the perceived evils of today's fan environment, in the spirit of Against Modern Football. They are realistic though. "We are guilty of getting too serious about it, bemoaning the fact that you have to pay upwards of [$75] to watch most Premier League games or spend a similar amount to get a club's shirt for your kid," says Biss. "But really, we're resigned to a lot of things that have changed about the game—we're left fighting the small battles."