If the hotel receptionist thought it was strange that six English people wanted to call a taxi to the Campo Sportivo San Donnino on the outskirts of Florence, it was nothing compared to the reaction of the taxi driver who arrived for the pickup. On the way to the home of Centro Storico Lebowski in the Comune di Campi Bisenzio, the driver made several phone calls, recounting this bizarre event to his friends. Perhaps the strangest part was the fact that the first team weren’t even playing that day. The C.S. Lebowski Juniores team were hosting their equivalents from A.S.D Maliseti Tobbianese, from nearby Prato.
On arrival at the gate however, there was no such incredulity as there had been forewarning of the arriving English party. On a sunny Saturday in October, with the Tuscan hills providing a scenic backdrop, it was an apt setting to watch the beautiful game, and football is never more beautiful when it is being watched in its purest form. The reason for being there, however, ran deeper than pure aesthetics.
Speaking to those involved after the game, it became clear that this was no ordinary provincial team. Their ground-breaking project has been taking place since the club was established in its current form in 2010. Their model is based on autogestione (self-management), but this barely scratches the surface of club’s ethos.
The Ultras Lebowski were unsatisfied with modern football and the distance placed between fans and club. Some (but not all) had been Fiorentina ultras in the past. C.S Lebowski evolved from a club called A.C Lebowski, who were infamous for being unsuccessful. In one season they conceded 99 goals and were frequently bottom of the league. The idea of a new club was dreamed up by three friends sitting on a bench and in 2010, these ultras set about realising the dream of a club owned by the fans, with a horizontal structure. This model is completely unique in Italy; anyone who has a €20 season ticket has a say in the running of the club, and the decision making process is democratic.
A recent documentary on Italian TV channel, RAI, perfectly illustrates the passion and principles of those involved with the club. The programme shows fans cooking dinner and eating together before every match, doing groundsman work on the pitch, and tells of an overall budget of €70,000 – 70% of which is raised internally through fundraising events. Team photos are always taken with the fans behind them in the Curva Moana Pozzi because the “fans are the players and the players are the fans”.
Lebowski fans provide a passionate and colourful backdrop at their home of San Donnino
The problems with modern football are what unite them, the “battle over who is master of the game”. They say that this pushing and pulling is between the club presidents, sponsors, the FIGC, government, media and law enforcement. The ones that lose out to this constant wrangling are always the fans; who, according to those at Lebowski have become ‘resigned to passivity’. The very nature of their own model means that the fans are absolutely essential and at the heart of everything they do to make the club function.
A romantic idea this may be, but the remarkable thing about the Grigionero is that they have translated these ideals into success. Starting in the very bottom tier of Italian football, the first team have achieved two promotions in five years. Their model is inclusive, having established three teams in addition to the first team: a women’s team, junior team and an amateur team. All this in the space of five years. Those involved attribute success to their model: the idea that the team plays for each other and plays for the people. No one is passive; everyone takes an active part in the running and administration of the club. The point being that the team plays for each other and plays for the people.
Of course, hard work and dedication alone does not make a football club. At any level, funding is key to success. Lebowski are proud of their self-dependency, not having to rely on funds from individuals who may want to change the way that the club is run. Even the generation of income feeds into the wider objectives of the club, as money is mainly raised through social events and local sponsorship. Their band of Ultras support the team by creating an electric atmosphere at every game. They may be relatively few in numbers, but their megaphones, colourful flares and constant noise reflect the absolute dedication to the cause. An exclusive range of merchandise has also been created, of which even many larger teams would be envious.
The big stumbling block for Lebowski is that they have been unable to find a suitable home. Their current stadium at San Donnino is their third in five years and they have previously been charged as much as €10,000 per year for basic facilities.
For the Ultras Lebowski, finding a permanent home is key to their project as a whole. They see the stadium as a “bridge between the streets and the team”. At San Donnino, they have plans to extend their resources into the local community in order for people to feel part of the club. As part of their social project, they hope to extend the use of the field adjacent to the stadium so that children in the local area have a safe place to play football in the evenings.
Despite having a strong self-financing business model, their work in the community and their plans for further projects, this club are facing the prospect of losing their home. They are in competition with another local team for the use of the stadium, which is why, after five years of rebuffing media interest in their unique setup, C.S Lebowski are making an appeal. In the past they have fought hard to protect their sanctuary from modern football, shying away from media interest. Their tune has changed however and they feel that it is time to promote their unique club. Any public backing created as a result would serve to enhance their cause.
Their aim is simple: to drum up ‘likes’ on their Facebook page, to enhance their social media presence; and to obtain as many new members as possible with an ultimate target of 500 (they are currently just under halfway to achieving this). In opening up their membership, they hope to appeal internationally to those who have also become weary of the negative aspects of modern football. For a €20 subscription, anyone can become part of C.S Lebowski, and for this price they will have an equal say into the club’s decision making process, by way of an online vote.
Having witnessed the passion, hard work and community spirit within the club, it would be a huge shame for them to lose their home yet again, especially before they’ve been able to implement the rest of their innovative vision.
To join C.S Lebowski or like them on Facebook, click here:
To view the documentary on RaiTV click here: