Most football clubs start as grassroots clubs. Man City and Celtic were founded by churches. Man Utd and Arsenal were works team. Across the UK, and the World, almost all football clubs are grassroots clubs, run for the love of football, scraping money together, knowing they and or their players will never hit the big time.
Globally some large sports teams are technically fan owned; Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, Boca Juniors in Argentina, River Plate in Uruguay and Green Bay Packers [American football] in the USA. But they are all really just big businesses and many previously fan owned sports club teams have become limited companies in recent years, like Benfica.
In the UK in recent years a some league clubs such as Exeter, Wrexham, Newport County and Dunfermline Athletic, have become fan owned or part owned after being run into the ground by previous private owners. Other ‘phoenix clubs’ have arisen, like AFC Wimbledon who were established by their supporters when their club was moved to Milton Keynes. Three clubs in Argentina were actually set up by anarchists: Club Atlético Colegiales, who named their new stand in 2005 “Tribuna Libertarios Unidos” after their original name; Argentinos Juniors who were originally called the “Martyrs of Chicago”, in homage to the eight anarchists imprisoned or hanged after the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago; and Chacarita. However, none could be called anarchist now.
This feature will look at more radical grassroots football clubs.
The Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls are a sports and social club based at The Plough Inn, Easton, Bristol. Beginning with the formation of a football team in 1992, The Cowboys and Cowgirls now includes several men’s and women’s football teams, three cricket teams, two netball teams, a club for kids and families (Cowboys & Cowgirls Kids Klub, or CACKK) and a whole legion of ex-players and non-sporting members (Legends & Supporters).
They are totally member owned and run. Over the years they’ve played across the world spreading a message of football and radical politics including supporting the Zapatistas in Chiapas and Palestine. They also organised alternative World Cups. All those involved in the Cowboys and Cowgirls have a voice – whether they play a sport or not. This is why there is no fixed membership of the organisation. Although each section of the club is run for, and by, its players, every player and supporter has a voice and a vote in the wider club and all club positions are elected. Everyone involved in the Cowboys and Cowgirls is welcome to come to all club events and meetings.
AFC Unity was founded in 2014 in Sheffield as an alternative football club dedicated to feminism and social justice with a passion for football and making a positive contribution in the local community. The AFC stands for Alternative Football Club, and they wear the colour red to represent socially progressive ideals, and as an homage to Sheffield’s historic Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest club. “Unity” speaks for itself: it represents the ethos of the club as utilising the unifying power of the sport. They state that “AFC Unity is an alternative football club for women, focused on bringing the game back to its grass-roots as a uniting force, bringing people together for the love of the game beyond vested interests and the influence of profit.”
“AFC Unity focuses on women, as they have been historically excluded, and aims to produce and promote positive role models. AFC Unity envision a society where the football club plays an active role in its community, engaging and empowering women as positive role models, and using the sport to encourage unity, solidarity, and social cohesion.”
FC United were set up in 2005 by Man Utd fans who had enough of their club becoming little more than a business investment. They are owned by 5,000 members and are the largest supporter-owned football club in the UK and operate as a Community Benefit Society.
FCUM have rapidly risen through the non-league ranks and have some of the highest crowds and most vociferous and political fans outside the leagues. After 10 years of ground sharing they opened their own ground in 2015 and in that season year averaged 3500! But with expansion issues have arisen and in 2015 United were criticised for a deficit in democracy, transparency and accountability between their officials and the membership. In 2016, protests by supporters led to several board members stepping down and an Extraordinary General Meeting elect a new board was subsequently called taking place in June 2016. A new board of 11 members was elected, leading to “a sense of progression and an air of optimism” among the club’s members.
One of two new fan owned teams in Liverpool, City of Liverpool FC was formed in 2015 and play at Step 5 of the Non-League football pyramid, the North West Counties League. Unlike AFC Liverpool who draw support from Reds, COLFC draw support from Reds and Blues and hence their fans name of the Purple Partisans [ Red and Blue = Purple] Their slogan is “Bringing Football back to the fans” and they say: “We seek to be an inclusive footballing expression of our city region identity, community owned and operated and providing a foundation for grassroots football to thrive and grow.” They are also a CBS (Community Benefit Society), which means that while the supporter owned club that can make profits, that profit cannot be distributed amongst shareholders (fans) as a dividend and instead has to be reinvested back into the club or its community outreach programme. The Club regularly hosts a foodbank and provides facilities for local charities and good causes to promote and fundraise at home games.
Mount Pleasant Park FC are based in Sheffield. Their ‘about’ states simply and perfectly “All abilities and genders welcome. Love Cantona, hate racism.” They organise loads of tournaments with other radical community clubs.
Republica Internationale in Leeds prides itself on being a socialist Sunday League football club. They started in 1983 as Woodhouse Wanderers: “a bunch of footballing lefty radicals (Anarchists, Marxists, Neo-Marxists, Communists and Socialists) met in a smoke-filled pub (not unlike Marx and Engels prior to the publication of Das Kapital) called The Pack Horse in Leeds and decided to form a football team (rather than emancipate the proletariat and seize control of the means of production.”
They state “We are a Socialist football team, based in Leeds, England, which is about much more than just football. We are distinguished by our philosophy and by our political commitment to “Freedom through Football”. We do play grass-roots football (both in Leeds and abroad), but we also socialise enthusiastically, and engage in other forms of political action. We’re trying to keep politics in sport, and have a good time as well!”
FC Kolektivo Victoria are a football club based at Victoria Park, Leicester. They state: “We are a club who recognise the fundamental equality of all people, irrespective of age, class, culture, disability, gender, race, religion, or sexuality. We seek to enjoy sport as part of strengthening local and international solidarity, performing to the best of our potential, and enjoying being part of a team.” and more simply ” Autonomous left-wing community football club. Friendly kickabout EVERY Sunday. Tournaments and tours in UK and further afield. No Borders, No Nations.”
United Glasgow were set up in Glasgow in 2011 by Unity in the Community, an organisation working to support asylum seekers. They state ” Our two guiding principles when we started our project were anti-discrimination and financial inclusion. By keeping our costs to an absolute minimum and not charging players for games or training where we can we manage to bring together individuals from communities who would otherwise probably never have met through a shared love of football. By providing this common ground for people with such varied nationalities, religious and cultural backgrounds, United Glasgow aims to inspire a spirit of inclusiveness in grassroots football.”
Roter Stern Leipzig were set up in 1999 as a Left Wing sports association, a “cultural and political sport project torn between normal football and left-radical politics”. They started with a football team, and have the highest number of active players of any sports club in Leipzig. The association now includes six male teams, one female and seventeen teams for children of different ages – girls and boys, teams for basketball, handball and volleyball and a roller-derby, and also sections for tennis, gymnastics, chess, triathlon, croquet, table tennis, climbing, badminton, darts, cycling and running! Roter Stern also set up sports projects to break the isolation of refugees e.g. the so called “Zocktreff” where anyone is free to join to play football in a casual and relaxed atmosphere.
Lewes FC, The Mighty Rooks, were set up in 1885 and have worn black and red and played at their Dripping Pan ground since 1893. In 2010 they became 100% fan owned, now with 1200 supporter/owners! They state: “We believe that football isn’t just a ‘product’. It can entertain but it can also help bring communities together and bring about genuine social change. To do this, we believe that thousands of fans owning an equal share in their club is a more equitable and sustainable way of doing things.” They continue, “Lewes FC is run by the people, of the people, and for the people. This is our declaration of football independence – which means you (yes YOU!) can be an owner of our club… We’ve turned our club into an engine for good and we’d like to work with you. Every penny we get from sponsorship goes back into the club and its community work, because this is a club run by the fans, for the fans and of the fans”.
For the 2017/18 season, Lewes Football Club became the first pro or semi-pro club in the world to pay its women’s team the same as the men team, under the hashtag #EqualityFC. As they say ” The future is bright, the future is black & red…”