Representatives of SD members Eskabee 1935 FC and the Royal Antwerp umbrella fans group, Federation of Antwerp Supporters (Clubs) were joined at the weekend by officials of Belgian Pro-League OH Leuven, and representatives from democratic supporters' organisations involved in the governance of clubs including: Supporters Eendracht Aalst, Kaa Ghent, and Supporters KV Mechelen, the first supporters' organisation in Belgian football to take a role in the ownership and governance of their clubs.
The two major national fans organisations - SFP and NSF - were both present, alongside one of the most outspoken supporters of democratic fan involvement in the ownership and governance of clubs across Europe, the Belgian MEP Ivo Belet, who recently hosted the launch of Supporters Direct Europe's Position Paper. The presence of the best and most prolific writer on football finance and governance over the last 40 years, De Standaard's Francois Colin, added to the depth and breadth of the dicussions on the day.
The workshop, the final one of the six being held as part of the EC funded Improving Football Governance through Supporter Involvement and Community Ownership project, also welcomed a fellow partner in the project from Ireland, Niamh O'Mahony, the co-ordinator from FORAS, owners of Cork City FC. Niamh gave an inspiring talk on the work that FORAS did to reform Cork City - particularly the events leading up to the collapse of the old club, which a real awakening of supporter-activism, and the realisation by the FAI that they provided a long-term solution to the terrible financial problems at the club, created under recent poor private ownership.
Andre Bolsens, President of Eskabee, opened the day with a warm welcome to all. SD's Kevin Rye, who worked with the fans of the defunct KSK Beveren to reform two years ago, followed the results of the project survey with a full introduction to the work of SD Europe, and its vital role in Belgium to support the work of clubs and groups like Eskabee, FAS(C) and to provide further resources to organisaitons like the SFP & NSF to assist the formation of organisations concerned with improving ownership and supporter influence in their football clubs, with the soon to be finished Handbook - another key part of the project - discussed extensively amongst delegates.
There were lively discussions as part of each of the sessions - with several involving the senior representatives of OH Leuven, with much talk about their desire to properly develop the Co-operative model of ownership that the club adopted several years ago, before it rose up into the top division in Belgium. Hans Van Den Nieuwenhof, legal advisor and director of Eskabee, led a discussion which he hoped would continue beyond the weekend, to work out the crucial legal issues - particularly what type of legal model will best suit Belgian clubs and organisations seeking involvement in the ownership and governance of their clubs.
Stuart Dykes led a discussion around the Supporter Liaison Officer project, the introduction which Supporters Direct Europe is facilitating jointly with UEFA across Europe. Stuart outlined the requirements of Article 35 in UEFA's Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play regulations, showed the ten-minute UEFA knowledge-sharing video "A Day in the Life of an SLO" before giving a brief introduction to the role itself. Delegates then discussed the impact of the role in Belgium.
The workshop was also lucky to secure the services of another well known football writer, Raf Willems, who has also been penning books and articles on governances amongst other issues for a number of years, and who chaired the closing debate. The session involved Niamh O'Mahony, Andre Bolsens, Erik Reynaerts from the National Supporters Federation, and Kevin Rye. Topics covered ranged from the slightly less formal "who is your football hero?" - to a serious discussion on the future of fans in Belgian football - all agreeing that the role of fans and communities in clubs and the wider game was vital, if Belgian club football was to thrive again, as it had done for many years in the past.
The day closed with a meal, with continued interesting and lively exchanges. The work done by Eskabee 1935 ad FAS(C), with groups like those at Aalst, KV Mechelen, and the progressive outlook OH Leuven are pledging to continue, forms a committed set of groups, determined to show that a different model is possible in the country. We hope and believe that we have seen important work in Belgium to support the role of fans in ownership and governance of their clubs.