Undermining in amateur football: a gradual process

Amateur football clubs are vulnerable to (criminal) interference. The influence of, say, a major sponsor can be undermining if this sponsor makes certain demands, or if the club is too dependent on that one sponsor. As soon as a lot of money is involved, casual players are recruited and the sponsor expects great performances from the first team in particular, it is not good for a club.

In the research report ’Een sluipend process’ (A gradual process), researchers from Utrecht University describe the ethical climate in which this can occur. Resisting undermining is not easy, precisely because it evolves gradually, and is also difficult to be made prosecutable. Suddenly, a club appears to have gone too far. The shame about decisions that have been taken and sometimes the fear of bankruptcy or a visit from the FIOD can then exacerbate the problems. Yet clubs, KNVB and municipalities can indeed do something about it, according to the researchers, and strengthen the resilience of clubs against undermining.

We conducted an exploratory study, picturing the so-called ’permissive ethical climate’ for undermining activities in football clubs, says researcher Inge Claringbould. What makes clubs more or less vulnerable to undermining from - large and sometimes criminal - sponsors? Sketchy and cash payments for example, play an important role, combined with a strong focus on promotion in competition and first-team performance.

Many clubs deny the possible consequences of such payments or the performance focus, namely that it makes them vulnerable to undermining. Even more, such payments are considered normal, and they don’t speak about player rewards.

Dependence on sponsor can undermine democracy in clubs

But it extends beyond that, Claringbould explains: Clubs can gradually get into an irreversible process in which a large (criminal) sponsor can gain a lot of power in a club, and in which the club’s dependence on this sponsor increases to such an extent that it undermines the democracy within the club. The sponsor can make demands, get on the board himor herself or appoint board members and thus take a strong grip on the club, sometimes of a criminal nature.

Moreover, it puts a club in a very vulnerable position because it can no longer fulfil its financial obligations without that sponsor. It can also lead to discussion within the club, for example when more players come in from outside, and sometimes leave again (’club hopping’) when they can earn more elsewhere. They do not commit themselves to the club. In addition, it can also get in the way of a through-flow of young players, when relatively much money goes to the first team and less to the development of the club’s own youth.

Vulnerable institutions

In recent decades, amateur football clubs have become hybrid organisations. This means that, besides membership fees and public money from government bodies, they increasingly need sponsorship money to survive. The clubs fulfil a social role in villages and neighbourhoods in cities; providing exercise and activities, health and cohesion. At the same time, they make costs, that need to be matched by income.

Not all amateur football clubs are vulnerable, and not all big sponsors show undermining behaviour

Sponsorship in itself is a fine solution, says Claringbould. When, as a club, you choose to have multiple sponsors with more or less equal contributions, that is of course fine. And it’s good to also say that not all amateur football clubs are vulnerable, or that all big sponsors show undermining behaviour, let’s make that clear. But if a club has a very big sponsor with not so good intentions, they become dependent on this sponsor and especially when that sponsorship involves a lot of money and the club then has to be very performance-oriented.

The point is that undermining, whether criminal in nature or not, is a gradual process. Suddenly a board realises that it has got carried away, that things have got out of hand, in sportive, social or financial terms. Usually boards find it difficult to approach the KNVB or a municipality at this stage, because they would have to admit to having made ’mistakes’. And the clubs sometimes runs big risks.

Sometimes the offer is too good to be true. And if you think that as a club executive, you actually already know it’s suspicious

Inge Claringbould

Sometimes the offer is too good to be true. And if you think that as a club executive, you actually already know it’s suspicious, says Claringbould. Sometimes there really is a lot of money involved with the secondor third-division clubs. What you often see is top players are being recruited, and at very good pay too. But as an outsider in football, I was still surprised at what you sometimes see. There are footballers who get 1,500 euros for that one game and some training in the week and live off that. Some students pay for their studies with it - from, with all due respect, one game of football a week.

People also cheat with fees, despite regulations from the KNVB (the national football union). The KNVB has set some rules for allowances, for example for the volunteer allowance, which cannot exceed 180 euros. But what if four members of a family are members of the club? Or say that they have to travel twice a week for the club? That is hardly checked, if at all. And if envelopes with money are handed out on the spot, the union doesn’t see that either. All sorts of sketchy constructions are possible. It is a breeding ground for money laundering.

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Loyalty, peer pressure and culture of silence

Sports club’s board members, volunteers and members are usually recruited and socialised by existing members. This results in a relatively homogeneous social network, with strong internal loyalty and peer pressure, a relatively autonomous position and little external supervision. At the same time, precisely this results in sports associations developing a culture hidden from society, making them difficult to control, correct, or change.

It was therefore not easy for the researchers to find respondents. There is a culture of silence. Inge Claringbould comments: It was difficult to find people who wanted to speak to us as researchers. Sometimes they did not want to ’bring up the past’ again, sometimes there they fear threats, or visits from the tax authorities or the FIOD.

But we did manage to speak to people, they often did not want to say anything about suspicious or criminal transactions. And the board members were actually embarrassed because of the ’mistakes’ they had made, and the problems they were in, so they did not want to talk openly about undermining.

Nevertheless, the researchers ended up talking to about 30 people involved about their experiences. And from those conversations, repetitive patterns soon emerged that gave insight into the vulnerability of amateur football clubs, and into the gradual process of undermining.

Conclusion: clubs must strengthen their resilience

Criminal undermining of amateur football clubs is a problem that cannot be easily tamed on the basis of one, or a few simple solutions. It is a process that requires attention to relationships between all involved. Nor are there necessarily culprits to blame, as the nature of the gradual process shows. Solutions must therefore be found mainly in the direction of preventing risks and training resilience against attempts at subversion, they say.

More focus on organisational culture and the social context of clubs

Besides the opportunities that clubs themselves have to intervene, it appears that the support from the KNVB and municipalities are still underused. Consider, for example, the role of the municipality, which grants catering licences and in many cases also owns the accommodations - to which they can therefore impose conditions. The KNVB has possibilities with regard to signalling disturbances. For instance, the union could inquire with a club about the background of certain signals they receive, for instance about the unexpectedly strong development and promotion of the first team and they could monitor the club’s financial dealings more emphatically and structurally if there are developments within the club that fit the pattern of criminal interference.

Furthermore, performance-oriented sports clubs should be made more aware of their vulnerability to criminal influence and how they can make better choices in a moral sense. This is still little developed, the researchers note. It is important that associations, umbrella organisations and municipalities pay attention to the organisational culture and social context (such as awareness and bonding) of clubs. This will allow signals to be picked up at an early stage and strengthen the resilience of clubs against undermining practices.

Research team

Inge Claringbould, with collaboration from: Maarten van Bottenburg, Sietse Brandsma, Dominique Brommers, Ineke Deelen, Frank van Eekeren, Mariette van den Hoven, Gerald Mollenhorst, Freek Schuurman.

Download the full research reportáEen sluipend proces. Een studie naar de institutionele context van (crimineel) ondermijnend gedrag in het voetbal. (In Dutch)

An interview with Inge Claringbould about the study appeared in newspaper Trouw on 11 September 2023: ’Zo krijgen criminelen Nederlandse amateurclubs in hun greep’ (’This is how criminals get a grip on Dutch amateur clubs’), in Dutch.

Read the interview with Inge Claringbould with Trouw (website + pay wall, in Dutch)

Vulnerable institutions: undermining of sports clubs

The research project ’Een sluipend process (’A gradual process) is part of ’Institutions as bad barrels: criminal undermining of sports clubs’, a research programme of Utrecht University’s focus area Sport & Society, focusing on vulnerability of sports clubs to criminal interference and undermining. This concerns not only match-fixing and money-laundering in international, professional sport. There are also growing concerns that there is criminal interference and undermining at local sports association level. From an academic perspective, little attention has yet been given to this. To the extent that there is any, these are mainly inventory studies, with little focus on sports associations as institutions. ’Institutions as bad barrels’ aims, in other words, to pay more attention to the ’bad barrels’ (clubs that have come under criminal influence) than to the ’bad apples’ (criminals) that fall into them.