Two of Europe’s most ground-breaking clubs underline the unifying power of football
Often attracting the wrong kind of headlines in Poland, football showed itself as a force for good last night when Warsaw’s AKS Zły met FC United of Manchester in the inaugural edition of the Fenix Trophy.
Backed by a raucous travelling contingent of 150 supporters, FCUM eased to a 6-1 victory to record their first ever win in competitive European football.
However, for the majority of spectators the score line was never of importance – pitting two of Europe’s most ground-breaking clubs against each other, this was a fixture that served to underline the unifying power of football.
Founded in 2005 by fans left disillusioned following Malcom Glazer’s takeover of Manchester United, FCUM have since been heralded across the globe as a primary example of fan power.
Though significantly younger, AKS Zły on the other hand have also been lauded for their progressive philosophy and in 2019 were named as Europe’s “Best Grassroots Club” by UEFA.
Dubbed Poland’s “first democratic football club”, that AKS Zły met FCUM was facilitated by the creation of the Fenix Trophy, a cup competition contested by eight non-professional clubs chosen, say the organizers, “for their exceptional social, historical and cultural distinctiveness.”
Featuring teams from Italy, Spain, Poland, Germany, Holland, England and the Czech Republic, the tournament saw teams divided into two groups and will culminate next year with a final held in Rimini.
According to Kris Gorniak, one of the original founders of AKS Zły, to be drawn against FCUM was the realization of a long-held dream: “FCUM act as a role model for fan-owned clubs around the world so it’s always been a goal to play them,” he told TFN.
“We always wanted to wait until we’d caught up a little more in sporting terms, but when the Fenix Trophy was created even the non-believers in our ranks were praying that we’d be drawn in the same group as them.”
Galvanizing the club’s followers, the much-hyped match was attended by just under 1,000 people – including several children and refugees who were allowed in for free.
Though the final score fell largely in line with pre-match expectations, for those in attendance, however, it was a night on which football took second place.
Played to a boisterous backdrop, the sense of history being made was reflected by the passionate support witnessed in the stands.
“I think person-for-person the Brits were louder and had the better songs,” says Gorniak, “but our own little circus was also absolutely incredible with its rainbow-coloured smoke bombs, sparklers and messages about the culture of our club. I didn’t see a single minute of the game, but I’ll remember it to the day I die.”
It was, too, an equally memorable night for the travelling Red Army. Adrian Seddon, a board member of FCUM, said: “When we walked away from Manchester United in 2005 I don’t think any of us could have imagined we’d ever watch our team play competitively in Europe again.
“Manchester United were pioneers for English football in the 1950s when they entered European football, and it feels special that we’re now emulating them and following in their footsteps.”
Though FCUM had played numerous international friendlies before, this was the first time they’d taken to foreign fields to play for something other than honour.
“It’s just a fabulous experience all-round,” said Seddon. “Two great sets of fans mixing in the stands, and a win that really demonstrates that we’re not in this competition to make up the numbers – we really want to win it.”
Praising the hospitality, Seddon said: “All of us have had a brilliant time out here. After the match we ended up in a bar hired by AKS Zły with everyone mixing, drinking and singing until the early hours. Hopefully we’ll reciprocate that back in Manchester.”
According to Seddon, it was an experience also relished by the players. “We had a 16-year-old academy player on the pitch last night, just imagine how he must have felt to have the opportunity to play abroad at his age!
“We had other players that I’m certain are destined to play league football, but I’m convinced that even they will treasure this match for the rest of their lives.”
For fans and players alike of both teams, the adventure offered by European competition has had an intoxicating effect.
“Clubs of our level don’t have the opportunity to play European football,” said Seddon, “but this competition has created that chance. We’re hopeful it will be expanded in the future so that it becomes an aspiration of other clubs, and I don’t see why this really can’t happen.
“Certainly from a cost perspective, we worked out it was twice cheaper to get to Poland than Whitby Town for our forthcoming game there. With the right sponsorship, this tournament can really grow.”
A buzzword of sorts, growth is also on the lips of those at AKS Zły. “We need our own stadium,” says Gorniak. “With our own stadium we can really commit to 24/7 charity actions whilst mixing them with sporting events. Basically, a stadium will give the club limitless opportunities.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Seddon. “As a club AKS Zły are ten-years younger than us, but you can really see that they’re following the same path that we once walked. For us, building our own ground was the result of a burning desire, and it’s clearly something that AKS Zły need as well.
“What I’d say to them is be patient. It’s always better to do things in a sustainable way, and I think that’s exactly what they’re doing right now. Fast-forward ten-years, and I’m sure we’ll see them in a very strong position.”