"They forget to ask what the people who will be in the stands and give a soul to the concrete actually want."

We talked to Pierre Barthelemy, in charge of the legal affairs at the Association Nationale des Supporters, a French supporters organisation. He explains its role, its ideas and their position on safe-standing and the SLO.

1) Hi Pierre. Could you define your position at the ANS and what the role of the ANS is?

I was elected to the Bureau of the ANS, in charge of the legal affairs. The role of the ANS, the Supporters National Association, is diverse:

First of all, we have to respond to the historical excuse of governments and public institutions to avoid sitting down with the fans: the lack of representativeness. By uniting around 40 French supporters groups (be it official members of the ANS or supporting groups), the ANS wants to be the speaker of the stands, to be the main interlocutor of actors of French football.

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Second of all, there is also the will to have the most representative internal dialogue of French football fans to understand the needs, to identify common issues and share information from the top to the bottom across France. Obviously this covers the repressive actions taken across the country: how do stadium bans work, or bans from attending away-games? How do we use others’ experience to respond in a better way? This also concerns our proposals for change: for example, regarding safe-standing, we look at what is done somewhere else to suggest ideas to our own clubs.

Third of all, it’s a work place for suggestions and ideas. The ANS has written guides on different subjects: safe-standing (which is at the basis of the recent decisions regarding safe-standing trials in the country), flares, SLO…etc

Fourthly, the ANS is a judicial party defending supporter’s rights. We often go to court and obtained numerous successes defending supporter’s rights, especially regarding the abusive filing of fans (winning in the State Council) and illegal restrictions to the fans’ freedom to movement (Administrative Court of Nantes). Moreover, we are leading the lobby and allowed to change the Larrive law in a law that is way less anti-supporters and much more orientated towards dialogue with the supporters.

The fifth and last main role, the ANS represents France in Europe on matters relating to fandom. It is elected to the board of the Football Supporters Europe and it’s member of Supporters Direct Europe. With SD Europe, the ANS was also selected in the LIAISE Erasmus+ co-financed by the EU and UEFA to work on the implementation of the SLO (Supporter Liaison Officer). This program will expand over two years until December 2019, and lead us to have work sessions in Sweden and the Czech Republic.

2)      What’s the situation of fandom in France, compared to the UK for example? Can you explain the difficulties faced by the supporters in France to our readers?

The fandom situation in France is really different from the one in England, and for a number of reasons. French fandom doesn’t have the same violent and dramatic past of its English counterpart. Hooliganism in particular only affected a few cities, in a much smaller manner. This difference is also the result of the cultural difference between the two kinds of fandom: the really passionate French supporters drew inspiration from the Ultra model of Italy. At the moment, the main difference is the relative delay French fandom has regarding structure and political weight compared to the English one. In the UK, and in England in particular, fans can count on the FSF, presided by Kevin Miles with numerous staff. This gives English fans a tool to act together, to go forward without having to rely on volunteers already involved on a local level. Moreover, football has much bigger weight in Britain than in France in the society, thus political and media coverage is bigger and more educated to the problems supporters can encounter.

However, English fans face other problems as bad as the French. First, English football lost its passion and remains prisoner of the extreme monetisation and its violent past. You can feel this when you look at the price of season tickets and day tickets for the Premier League, but also when you see how scared the government is about safe-standing.

In France problems are different, and are mostly caused by the government and the football institutions. Government-wise, there has been a very worrying habit of denying the rights of supporters to move freely, by restricting or even banning fans from going on away games. By the way, individually, the judicial powers have too often been contradicted or bypassed by administrative stadium bans instead of penal trials. The French Professional Football League (LFP) behaves as it was the hand of the government and often locks itself in a rigid and institutional approach of French football: fans are surveilled, not partners. Its lack of action regarding the dialogue obligation for French clubs with their fans (especially when it comes to the SLO) and safe-standing is a proof of that. The disciplinary commission is even worse: while its job is to make sure clubs behave in a correct manner, it is making great efforts to make supporter’s life miserable. All of this without hiding or anything, in the media or when explaining their decisions.

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3)      The ANS is, as you said, a great defender of the SLO system, a program that many nations have adopted really quickly, but not France. What is the SLO, and why is France so late? What examples should France follow?

The SLO, or Supporter Liaison Officer, was created by SD Europe and integrated by UEFA in its competition rulebook. Federations and leagues throughout Europe have adopted it with or withtou constraint, in their own leagues. In France, it became mandatory in May 2016 for all professional clubs in football, rugby, basketball, volley and handball.

It consists in a club’s employee or volunteer which role is to be a link between the club and its supporters. It is a sort of a privileged communicator, acting similarly as a messenger for both sides. Ideally, he/she is from the terraces where he/she has legitimacy and trust, he/she coverts all aspects of fandom like organising away days or a tifo, answering questions about match tickets, accessibility for disabled fans..etc In certain countries you have more than one per club, with one being assigned to Ultras and others, for example, to the kids section.

Everywhere, when done correctly, the SLO program has been a success and has had effects on crowd numbers on matchday, on the efficiency of dialogue and reduction of tensions and incidents. The most professional ones are in Germany. There are six employees at the German Federation in charge of supporters, including one who’s the coordinator of SLO’s. In each of the 18 Bundesliga club, it is mandatory to have 3 SLO’s. Another quality model and based on volunteer clubs rather than obligation is the Swedish one. The whole of Europe considers it a fantastic model. Since the creation of the SLO in 2012, incidents have gone down by 20% and crowds have grown by 67% on match days.

4)      Another fight is the one in favour of safe-standing. Recently, the British government has refused a test in West Bromwich Albion’s stadium, which caused new tensions and now a petition has been signed by more than a 100 000 people and will end up in Parliament. Why is it so important for the fans?

Too often stadia are built following a commercial and safety logic. They install VIP areas, drinks stands, safety exits, firemen access routes…etc and they forget to ask what the people that will actually be in the stands and give a soul to the concrete want. We then end up with stadia that are not suited to the diversity of fandom’s culture. In the ends, in the away section people often stand up and sing all game.

Today, it is forbidden to build stands to stand up, but it is not forbidden to actually stand up. Therefore, the fans sing and jump in a way that is not safe nor comfortable. Many get injuries by hitting the seat in front of them. Others stand on their seats and break them. This leads to safety problems and the clubs having to pay to install new seats every time.

However, there are safe-standing stands in Germany, in Scotland and in Sweden. They allow better atmosphere, while allowing cheaper tickets to be sold. In France, the government has accepted, finally, to try it out, based on the ANS work on the matter. We will have safe-standing stands in six stadia for two seasons. If it works, everyone will be allowed to have them.

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In any case, safety is the priority to avoid the tragedies that were the Heysel and Hillsborough. The size of these stands will be limited following the necessary safety measures in place and barriers will be installed.

5)      So in France the institutions are a bit more opened to the idea than in England. Why?

Yes, as I said, the work from the ANS really helped. But neither the ministry of Sports nor the LFP really helped. It’s the ANS that worked on this, mainly by publishing a very detailed report. A few clubs have approved our initiative, be it through statements or actions, including Lens, Saint-Etienne and Sochaux. This allowed us to have a much bigger “weight” when taking this to the national fandom body and to the members of Parliament.  It is thanks to the work of the body and the MP that the LFP and the Ministry of Sports were forced into following the movement, without any exceeding enthusiasm to say the least.

6)      So what are the next steps then for ANS? What needs to change still?

The ANS wants and needs to keep working. The causes worth fighting for are many, such as the freedom of fans’ movement, a better understanding when it comes to banning flares, and to make the LFP Disciplinary Commission understand that it creates useless tensions and destroys our efforts in favour of dialogue. We obviously have to keep the pressure on regarding SLO’s and safe-standing, while convincing all stake-holders. The strength of the ANS is dialogue, coherence in his arguments and its constant work: we need to keep up the good work.

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