who does a football club belong to?

A few weeks ago an Italian Serie A match between Genoa and Siena was called to a halt early in the second half when a group of hardcore supporters (commonly known as Ultras) of Genoa, displeased with their teams performance, started throwing fireworks onto the pitch. This isn’t terribly uncommon in Italy or in other leagues around the world, but what came next is.The Genoa Ultras refused to let their team leave the pitch until they had taken off their shirts and handed them over. They claimed that the players were not fit to wear the shirt. Eventually all but one of the players, some of whom were in tears, took off their shirts and handed them to the leader of the Ultras group (the player who refused, Giuseppe Sculli, is the grandson of a Mafia Don so probably had less to fear than the other players).

Genoa Captain, Marco Rossi, prepares to hand back the shirts of his players to the Ultras

Whilst the Ultras were widely condemned as thugs, using violence to hold football to ransom, I was intrigued by the reasoning behind their actions. They felt that they had every right to demand the players’ shirts due to the fact that, whilst players, managers, and owners all come and go with increasing regularity, the fans of a club are its only constant. They see themselves as the custodians of the club, the only thing that remains unchanged, and thus they have the right to make such demands of the players.

It’s difficult not to be sympathetic with such a view given the mercenary nature of professional sport. Why shouldn’t fans take a more active roll in steering the course of their clubs. It makes a change from the “protest” marches that have been occurring in England over  the past few years where, as The Guardian’s Barry Glendenning puts it, fans march from the pub they were going to be at anyway to the match they were going to go to anyway. But it does seem that these are two extremes of fan protestation. It doesn’t have to be intimidation and violence or lethargy and compliance.

Giuseppe Sculli argues with Ultras after refusing their demands to take off his Genoa shirt. Photograph: AP

Giuseppe Sculli argues with Ultras after refusing their demands to take off his Genoa shirt. Photograph: AP

An alternative option often floated is that if fans really wanted change at their clubs then the best step would be to take away the most important commodity in professional sports: money. The easiest way to do this is to stop attending matches. But if you are a Genoese Ultra who sees himself as a custodian of the club, voluntarily  not showing up to matches might not seem like a viable option. After all it is the job of a custodian to do what is best for the club, and presumably that means being there to support the club, not only that but if you intentionally restricting the clubs income they will almost certainly be less competitive. Surely if you are the custodian of the club you do not want to hurt it. However, if in this brings positive change in the long term then it wouldn’t it all be worthwhle?

And so we come to our first real philosophical concept: consequentialism. The rightness of an act is based on the consequences. In this particular case it might just be that in order for these self-proclaimed custodians of the club to do what is best in the long term they must first cripple it financially by boycotting it. Indeed, if all the Ultras of Italy got together they could truly provide positive changes to a league that has been hit by numerous match fixing scandals over the years. Given the violent clashes with rival groups synonymous with Ultras it may be that the greater good of the game is the furthest thing from their minds.

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