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Football fans turning passion into action

The EU-funded  EuroFIT project is aiming to harness people's enjoyment of watching football and use it to help them follow a healthier lifestyle. © Shutterstock/ rj lerich
The EU-funded EuroFIT project is aiming to harness people's enjoyment of watching football and use it to help them follow a healthier lifestyle. © Shutterstock/ rj lerich

Many football fans watch matches on the sofa or in the pub, and their fitness levels often contrast hugely with those of the players on the field. New efforts are underway to convert their fandom into motivation to get active and improve their health, or even to channel their support in socially beneficial ways.

As the football World Cup gets underway in Brazil during June and July 2014, supporters will be glued to their TV sets, willing their national teams to victory.

In reality, many football fans stick with their clubs year-in, year-out, even though many never see their dreams of glory come true. Some almost revel in the disappointment that repays their loyalty, and the joy of an occasional win is enough to keep them watching each week.

The EU-funded EuroFIT project hopes to harness this inspiration, and convert it into perspiration on the sports field for Europe’s unhealthy football supporters.

‘What we’re offering is a programme where supporters get together in the football stadia to get more activity,’ said EuroFIT project coordinator Professor Sally Wyke, of the University of Glasgow, UK. ‘It can give them a camaraderie that helps them to get moving.’

EuroFIT, which started at the end of 2013, is in the process of signing up 70 to 80 football fans at each of 15 clubs in Europe. 

The clubs recruit candidates through their websites, through newsletters and among season-ticket holders. The basis for choosing those invited to join the programme is that they are not following standard medical guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week - most move around very little in daily life.

The project is specifically aimed at using football to reach men, who can often be reluctant to sign up to other healthy lifestyle initiatives.

‘Previous research has shown men are generally very, very reluctant to sign up to lifestyle-change programmes, so we have tried to address that here,’ Prof. Wyke said. ‘They really welcome the opportunity to take part in these men-only groups, with a lot of joking and joshing, where they can discuss what are very sensitive topics to them, with others who are just like them.’

Groups typically meet on an evening during the week, and the activity can involve clubs’ community coaches. The exercise starts with a gentle walking programme and gradually builds as the participants make progress. The participants are encouraged to work at their own pace and safely build activity into their daily lives.

‘It’s like a night at the pub, but without the alcohol.’

Professor Sally Wyke, coordinator of EuroFIT

‘There is some explanation and discussion, and a lot of friendly banter, along with some movement too,’ Prof. Wyke said. ‘It’s like a night at the pub, but without the alcohol.’

The EuroFIT consortium includes Glasgow-headquartered PAL Technologies, which is developing a device based on its activPAL activity monitor to keep track of how much participants are moving and remind them to liven up when they are too sedentary.

The monitor is a small 15 gram device that fans carry around in their pocket. It works out how much time they have spent sitting, standing and walking. The activity is then processed using a computer to give fans a report on how active they are, and to prompt them to move around more.

‘The programme is also about making lifestyle changes last,’ added Prof. Wyke. ‘We want them to start doing these things automatically - getting up and about more, walking more, sitting less and generally being much more active.’

In England, EuroFIT is recruiting supporters of Arsenal, Everton, Newcastle, Stoke City and Manchester City. In Portugal, it is targeting SL Benfica, Sporting Clube de Portugal and FC Porto. And it is also signing up fans of Dutch and Norwegian teams. The research will run until 2018. If shown to be successful, the programme will be expanded around Europe.

Security, antisocial behaviour

Other EU-funded research is looking at how to improve the engagement between fans and their clubs so that they communicate better and can address wider issues such as security, logistics and antisocial behaviour.

The two-year FANSREF project, which began in 2013 and is funded by the EU's Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, is looking into implementation of the supporter liaison officer (SLO) system introduced by European football governing body UEFA from the 2012/2013 season in order to give fans a way to make their views heard.

The project has already found that while it works well in some countries and leagues, in others, club owners or management can see it as interference in how they run their affairs, and the role of SLO may exist on paper alone. In some cases, clubs will appoint SLOs without consulting the supporters themselves, which defeats the object.

‘This can result in the SLO having no credibility among fans, who see the role just as a tool of the club’s management,’ said lead researcher Dr Dino Numerato of Loughborough University in the UK.

With the trust and support of fans, however, the SLO can work as a kind of opinion leader, to encourage positive values and behaviour on the stands. The SLO often works alongside fans groups and fanzines.

Among the specific tasks where Dr Numerato has noted benefits at some clubs are efforts to improve security and the coordination of logistics for fans travelling to away matches, as well as improving organisational issues such as ticketing.

Dr Numerato said his research still had quite a way to go, but he expected it would show that better relations between clubs and supporters would not only help in organisational matters, but could help in addressing wider problems such as hooliganism or violence at the stadiums, and in promoting anti-racist initiatives.

‘I believe it can also help if the role of the SLO is working well with other relevant stakeholders. Where you have an SLO who has good working relations with social workers and maybe also social educators who are involved with the youth, then you have a great possibility to create a positive, fun atmosphere on the terraces,’ Dr Numerato said.

Uniting an enlarged Europe through football

Pan-European football has had a big impact on how much interest people in European countries take in their neighbours. The broadening of football competitions to include other European countries in recent decades has strongly contributed to a pan-European public sphere in popular culture, said Prof. Albrecht Sonntag, professor of international affairs at the ESSCA School of Management in Angers, France.

It means football supporters are more interested in what is happening in other European countries, according to Prof. Sonntag. ‘It has been a mind-opener for Europeans,’ he said.

Prof. Sonntag leads the EU-funded FREE programme looking at Europeans’ perceptions of each other through the prism of football. This provides what he calls a back-door approach to investigating European issues of identity, rather than addressing direct political matters such as the EU budget or the euro.

‘The project takes place at a moment where, with the economic and financial crisis across Europe, we see the renaissance of populism, and nationalist images,’ Prof. Sonntag said. ‘We think we are at a point in European integration where it becomes urgent to look beyond the political and economic sphere at what Europeans actually think about each other. Do they think they belong together, to the same family?’

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