"Coaches and players come and go, the owners too, but the fans stay": how a group of passionate supporters wants to save their football club.

We met with Sociochaux, a group of Sochaux supporters who want to take back control of their club, which is facing financial difficulties and face an uncertain future on the pitch.

You are the Sociochaux, a supporters group from Sochaux, France. Could you explain to our readers that might not know the club really well, what is Sochaux and what it represents at national and regional level?

A.G: FCSM is one of the first clubs in France to become professional, following its creation in 1928 under the influence of the car manufacturing group Peugeot, the main economic actor in the region of Montbeliard. The club was born with the idea of uniting the Peugeot workers and quickly played a vital social role in this industrial region. So we have this history of being the social core of the local working-class, but Sochaux managed to unite outside of the Pays de Montbeliard and is now at the core of the whole region of Franche-Comte.

Sochaux is before anything else a club recognised for its family values and its proximity with its supporters. One of its singularity is its commitment to mould young players with the academy. FCSM thus acquired the status of an historic club in French football, through its long history and its financial model quite unique in the “football-business”.

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The club is in a tough spell, both at a football and an economic level. What are the reasons, according to you?

J.L: Both aspects are linked. Even if this season both the players and the staff tried to ignore the financial situation. After 87 years with the Peugeot group, the club sold to Tech Pro Technology and its company LEDUS in 2015. Then we didn’t see this change as a positive change, as Peugeot has a key role in this region, and will remain in our memories forever no matter what. We were reluctant from the beginning, but we never imagined it would be this bad.

The new owner Wing-Sang Li promised big investment, but it never happened. Our experienced players left the club one after the other. Today, half our squad is out of contract this summer, and LEDUS is suspended from the Hong-Kong stock exchange after experiencing two financial crashes. Moreover, the club might be relegated financially at the end of the season.

Beyond its financial problems, the main cause of our problems is the lack of transparency on the real intentions and ambitions of the owner. No one knows why these people came to Sochaux. When Wing-Sang Li speaks in the media he is always vague and incomprehensible. This general atmosphere around the club is a real problem.

M.T: Right now, we don’t have a general director. The scouting branch has been dismantled. Structurally, and squad wise, the club is weakening. It is standing just because of the great staff that works there, that make the club survive everyday without any clear vision for the future.

So you launched your initiative with the objective of becoming shareholders of your club. What other goals have you set for yourselves?

J.L: We are still reflecting about becoming share-holders. The first thing we want is to have supporters involved in the future of the club. We are still discussing the different options to do so. That’s why we’ve launched an online poll with our supporters. On the week-end we had more than 1600 participants. Their participation is crucial for the future direction of the club. We also talk with former players and experts to decide on the best strategy to adopt.

The FC Sochaux-Montbeliard has very loyal supporters, despite the crisis. We want everyone to be involved the way they want to be involved. For us, the popular movement as “socios” should be present in all clubs. The advantages are numerous: a greater financial transparency at the general assembly with shareholders, or with the board, social initiatives destined to supporters such a car-sharing, or support financially the development of the youth academy, of which we want to maintain the great reputation it has in French football.

M.T: But the socios are not a “miracle solution”: there is a risk of being completely dependent on the next owner who would accept fans as shareholders. This entails having well defined projects for our movement and to know where we are going. Socios are a mean, not an end-goal. We need to define what we want for the future of our club. We can be as powerful by being a collective popular movement, as by being shareholders.

Another risk that I perceive is playing the good supporters – the socios – against the bad supporters – the ultras. Here, we do everything to get the terraces to participate in the movement and that the defence of supporters’ interests stays central to the project. It is our message: let’s think together and decide what we want for the club. Then we can decide what the best strategy is. Knowing that in Sochaux nothing is possible with the current owner, but the fans might be sent into action if the club collapses, as it did in Bastia.

How long have you thought about creating this movement? What stages have you been through before launching?

F.B: From three or four crazy people we became twenty or so, with different skills: accountants, legal advisors…etc. And from that we became 1600 with the people that have answered the questionnaire, knowing that a lot more people know about us and have gone on our website. We are in this phase where the idea settles in the panorama, where it begins to be discussed and where you need to define clearly. Before launching the questionnaire, we worked incredibly hard. We took the necessary time to set the basis for our movement and propose a viable and solid project to the fans.

Have you had a chance to discuss it with the club? If so, did they seem receptive? What do you want from them? Do you feel you have the support of the fans?

N.D: For now, we haven’t been contacted by the club and we don’t want to discuss with the owner. Fans have been mistreated for too long by the front-office. We don’t want to work with them because it would be received badly by the fans and lovers of the blue and yellow. However, we are preparing in case new owners arrive so we can work with them and revive the values that were those of FCSM.

From the supporters’ side there is real support, as we saw in the consultation and through the messages we receive on social media. However, a lot of supporters don’t really know what this project is going to bring, because the socios are not a very popular form of involvement in France compared to Spain for example. This is the goal of the questionnaire: to create a project that works for Sochaux, respecting its values and the local identity, while answering the ambition of the fans.

M.T: This project isn’t starting from scratch. It bases itself on the groups that have led the opposition to Tech Pro for a few years now. All active groups have assembled two years ago to ask the board for a clear direction for the club. It is what we called here “the motion”. From this motion the group “Sochaux United” started, which resulted from the union of active supporters groups.  Before Sociochaux, I participated personally in all that. I was at meetings between supporters and the board, we also discussed with them the idea of the socios. They are sceptic, and by that I mean that they believe the funds necessary to run the club cannot be provided by the fans. For them, it can only be secondary. However, the idea is becoming more and more central in the discussions.

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So you are not going on this adventure on your own right? You have the support of Supporters Direct Europe. What do expect from them?

T.A: We are supported by Supporters Direct Europe, an organisation that help governing football clubs and pushed for the involvement on the supporters in the club.

At first, we expected a clear project plan from them, which a clear path but when we met them they made us understand that it wasn’t their role. They are here to help us build the project, by showing us what worked elsewhere, and what didn’t! A few months ago we were ready to launch everything, but they suggested we took some time, to be sure the project corresponded to the will of the majority of the fans. This is what we did via the questionnaire. And now we see that they were right!

Now, we are always talking to them. It is a real exchange because they put us in contact with other supporters that built similar projects (for example in Tunisia with the CSS socios, in Sfax.), they advise us on the next steps and on our side we help them with specific aspects of French football (both financially and legally), which allows them to have a more specific idea of the European landscape. SD Europe really is a key partner and we really thank them for that.

So you got some inspiration from elsewhere. Which ones in particular?

M.T: Because the public consultation, and even before meeting with SD, we naturally talked with other projects in France. We talked with the people in Bastia and Le Havre. We really looked into what happened in Guingamp. It allowed us to understand what we could do looking at very different projects.

At Le Havre it was an association of supporters, similarly to Sochaux United for us. They had bought two shares in the club. It wasn’t a socios movement, meaning a popular movement, but an association that put together individuals. This type of movement has some advantages, such as showing a united front.

In Bastia, we were in a different context, in which there was an urgency in saving the club. Guingamp is a similar project to what we might want to achieve, with a minority participation of socios, in a pool of local shareholders. The fans are the 141th shareholders of the club. The model is interesting because it shows that the socios can work in a large shareholding logic, with numerous firms and individual behind the club. This is what we would like for Sochaux. But in Guingamp, we also have the impression that the project is led from the top, by the main owner instead of being led by the supporters. Which doesn’t fit our project.

You have answered our questions together. What are your personal reasons for investing so much time in this project? Is it the love for your club or something more?

N.D: Losing Sochaux would be terrible for me, but also for the region. French football would also lose a monument of its history. All these reasons pushed me to get involved.

M.T: What motivates me is to be able to save the club, to participate. But behind this, I think it is also the possibility of seeing “another football”, in which supporters can be fully involved. They are not simply spectators-consumers of a show, but the owner of their clubs. They are the ones who represent the clubs in the long-run. Coaches and players come and go, the owners too, but the fans stay.

F.B: FCSM is my youth, I am 20 and for a decade now I have been going to the stadium regularly, for the atmosphere, to relax after a busy week. Losing this club would be losing someone I care about deeply, it is something unthinkable for me.

Their website: http://www.sociochaux.fr/

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