Give young supporters a voice to help shape the future of football

The past year and a half has reminded us time and again of the importance and power of football fans. When the pandemic struck, it was supporters who clubbed together to donate to food banks, distribute PPE, do shopping for the vulnerable and elderly. When matches resumed behind closed doors, it was to the ghostly silence of empty stadiums devoid of atmosphere and character. And when a cartel of Europe’s top clubs tried to break away and form the European Super League, it was the anger and organisation from people that pulled them back from the brink.

Fans now have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of football in this country. In April, after the failed Super League coup, the government announced a fan-led review of football governance to be led by the sports minister, Tracey Crouch, and overseen by a 10-person panel. It includes former players, chief executives and media personalities, and is supposed to be representative of the entire game. And yet not one of the 10 members of the panel is aged under 35.

The decisions that are being made now will affect football fans for the rest of their lives. And yet at this crucial juncture for the game, the younger generation are being frozen out of the process. At no point in the policy paper establishing the terms of reference of the review was there any reference to young people. Around the time of the breakaway, nel frattempo, the 74-year-old Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez was claiming that young people are “no longer interested in football” because the “game is too long” and they have “other platforms on which to distract themselves”. This just isn’t true. Young people love football as much as anyone else. They just can’t access it in the ways they want to. And they’re sick of adults speaking for them and about them, rather than speaking to them. This is why, before the fan-led review, the charity Football Beyond Borders has spoken to young people from around the country to create a youth manifesto. Think of it as an open letter to the whole of football – clubs, leagues, stakeholders and governments – on behalf of its future. It consists of three main points.

1) Increased accessibility to football matches for young people
A huge number of young people have never seen a game in person. The vast majority cannot afford costly subscriptions to Sky or BT. And so for huge swathes of the population, that vital point of contact with the game, that object of devotion, simply does not exist. Access to top-class football simply goes to the highest bidder, and so crowds at many clubs become deeply unrepresentative of the communities they represent. This doesn’t mean turfing out existing loyal fans. Nel 2019-20 season, pre-pandemic, più di 700,000 seats at Premier League games were left empty. What if those tickets were given to charities, schools and youth organisations? What if children’s tickets were reasonably priced across the board? Clubs wouldn’t just benefit from full houses and an improved atmosphere; they may just earn a whole new generation of supporters.

2) Women’s football to be an equal platform and equal opportunities
The future of football must be one that includes women and girls as much as boys and men. Brands and governing bodies often like to pay lip service to the women’s game without putting in the work. But every day more and more girls are becoming invested in the sport. If they don’t have an opportunity to play and contribute, it will never truly feel like their game. In practice that means more funding for schools and grassroots clubs, who should in turn be held publicly accountable for providing equal
opportunities and equal facilities. It means educating boys as well as girls on the importance of women’s football, eradicating longstanding stigmas. And it needs the media to start portraying women’s football more equally and promoting it more proactively.

3) More accountability around racism and anti-discrimination
The recent racist abuse of England’s black footballers demonstrates that football is still not a safe space for many young people of colour. Everyone can do more here. Governing bodies and law enforcement can insist on harsher punishments for discriminatory behaviour. Clubs and community groups can take the lead on providing education programmes. And government can demand more accountability from social media platforms. Prevention is better than cure. In a way, this is a problem that cuts right across society: whether it’s in boardrooms, politics or the media, young people are systematically underrepresented, frozen out of the process. This is a generation that has grown up largely ignored: locked out of the rooms where the big decisions are made, denied a platform or a voice, and then derided for their lack of responsibility.

Every sport seems to be fixated on how to engage and connect with the younger generation. Who knows better than young people themselves? Young people have so much to contribute to football. They have ideas and energy and long-term vision. They are yet to develop many of the prejudices and blind spots that impair the judgment of older generations. Most of all, they have hope. But in order to have hope, you need to feel that things are changing. Adesso, more than ever, is the time to stop speaking for young people, and start listening instead.

Kenza Boutalbi (age 18) and Kian Hill (17) represent Football Beyond Borders and wrote this column in conjunction with the Guardian’s Jonathan Liew. FBB has written an open letter to Tracey Crouch, who chairs a fan-led review of football governance

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