There are many people who have grown tired of everything associated with modern football. They see the glitz and glamour of sponsorship deals, corporate hospitality, soulless modern stadia and every single moment captured a million times on social media, and feel like the essence of the sport is being torn from its roots.
For them, standing on the terraces among a community of people that feel like a large family and cheering for players who actually care about the cause is what really lights them up, but in modern times this can be hard to find. The alternative? There are plenty of lower league clubs that offer such commonality, however they often lack the atmosphere, passion and drama of following a side with more at stake.
But just imagine if there were a club started by a small group of friends with the same disillusioned mindset, one that was all-welcoming, supported its players with flares and atmosphere, enjoyed an unprecedented sense of belonging and fought for those who were not traditionally represented by the football community? One where fans and players celebrated together, were self-funded and had followers and paid members all over the world?
We could go even further with this idealistic standpoint and say that – in addition to a competitive first team – there was a women’s team, a football school for local children who could learn principles from the La Masia academy regardless of skill level, and a reserve side for those who wanted to enjoy the sport but hadn’t quite made the standard of the first team.
The members of this club would volunteer to make meals for players and supporters to eat together after each match, and every decision would be democratically debated and voted upon, in order that fans weren’t subjected to authoritarian rules.
However, this is not merely a dream. This team actually exists, founded by three friends who wanted to provide an alternative to global and commercialised football. Their team is named Centro Storico Lebowski, a Tuscan side based in Florence who have just achieved promotion to the sixth tier of Italian football after three years of trying.
They say that “belonging is a connection which emerges from the feeling of having been down a long path together” and that the modern way is creating more and more distance between its supporters and what happens on the pitch. They believe that only corporations stand to gain from the current model, and that the absence of local pride that comes largely from supporting the biggest football teams promotes de-territorialisation, a factor that ultimately harms the local community.
What do they feel proud of? “A manager who has been with us for six years,” reads a club statement. “A full stadium, because if it weren’t full, we wouldn’t be able to keep going financially.
“People arrive at the stadium hours before the match, because they know they will find others who’ve been there even longer. No police, no spruced-up stewards. Loads of children from our football school and that of local club Tavarnuzze celebrating amongst the Ultras instead of being at home watching Sky, because they too already feel like they belong to something.”
Turning the idea of making a profit from a football team on its head, Lebowski aim to place the football team at the heart of the local area, a hub of kinship that works together to improve health, education, opportunity and the region itself. Instead of allowing those with children at their academy to become obsessed with the success of their child, their football academy works alongside schools and parents to ensure that each and every one is valued, no matter their ability.
They point to the example of Atalanta, a small Serie A side under the shadows of their Milanese neighbours. They have an excellent youth sector, and have overachieved both domestically and in Europe over the last couple of years thanks to a strong alliance between the club and its supporters.
Instead of being solely focussed on making money, Lebowski say that all football clubs should ask themselves two questions in order to avoid losing its soul: “What I am doing reinforce my community?” and “Will it help to fill the stadium?”
It may take this side some time to reach their ultimate aims but, having achieved so much already, it’ss clear that their supporters will not rest until they have done so. Their dedication to the cause is awe-inspiring, not least for the number of hours the volunteers put into the running of the club on top of their ordinary jobs.
Through personal sacrifice, this team has become crucially important to all those who follow them, making the joy of their promotion this term indescribably sweet. Such a feeling is a perfect antidote to apathy, something that might be found in the money-saturated top flight, but never, ever seen in the Curva at CS Lebowski.