The scene is surreal. At first sight, it looks like a standard French 6th tier game. In a small stadium, under the Normandie rain, a 600 person crowd is quietly cheering the home team. The lack of atmosphere lets us hear the manager’s voice. Everything seems quite normal. However, the coach is actually in permanent contact with several people sitting in an alcove, looking like an official VAR room, above the pitch.
All those people are working for “United Managers“, a revolutionary concept allowing random people, fans, to coach a real team, “l’Avant-Garde Caennaise”, playing in the French 6th division. The app allows the 1200 supporters, called “Umans”, to decide everything for their team.
From the starting eleven to the in-game tactics, all the choices are made through live polls posted online on the United Manager’s app. The supporters have access to all sorts of data and Opta stats that help them make the choices, even during the course of the game. Consequently, the coach is just a simple mediator between the reality of the pitch and the fans instructions.
Height, weight, age, position, the team’s players are like real Football Manager avatars. The app allows the Umans to change formation, choose the tactic or the next replacement mid-game. “It is like a dream come true. We have the power to decide what we want to do with our team”, said one of the Umans. “Sometimes we had the feeling that we were just paying and watching football without having our word to say. We wanted to identify ourselves to the players”, declared another.
Fredéric Gauquelin, a former PE teacher and his assistant Bruno Bèlas launched the concept three years ago. “Every single football fan wonders why the coach is choosing one player instead of another in the starting eleven, well… with UM, the fans allowed to choose,” Gauquelin said to Canal Football Club. Until the results of the polls have been approved, the coach cannot take any decisions during matches. The fans even pick the starting XI ahead of matches and it is revealed to the players and the coaching staff simultaneously via an iPad in the dressing room.
Even if people remain sceptical, F.G says: “Those who discredit our concept think the fans are fools. But nevertheless, what comes out of all this is something coherent and smart”.
After all, United Managers is just a new way of approaching football, a subtle mix between a football club and a start-up. “During the day it is a start-up, on game night it is a football club,” said Bruno Bèlas, one of the UM founders. The concept is based on the in vogue “collaborative economy” model adopted by a lot of apps such as Airbnb or Couchsurfing. Nine employees (mostly young millennials) work all day at the club office. The app’s revenue model is based on advertising and season tickets but the technology involved is significantly costly enought that some of the expenses are covered by the owner’s pocket.
By allowing people to enjoy a game like they are playing Football Manager and letting them play a part in their club, UM is clearly redefining our footballing approach. It is, nonetheless, raising several issues. Such as the narrowing of the frontier between real and virtual football and the legitimacy of this concept.
United Managers have not been without controversy, as nine out of eleven of Avant-Garde Caennaise’s opponents in the league united to send a letter to the Normandie Football Association. The letter sought to denounce the “unfairness of this partnership” (between l’Avant-Garde and United Managers), pointing out the illegitimacy of the club’s incomes and manager. These charges were dismissed, but the growing anger among the Normandie Football Association clubs remains.
Their critics have not prevented the Caen-based club from having a good start in the league, winning seven games in a row in the Régional 1 (French 6th division).
Are United Managers and l’Avant-Garde Caennaise paving the way for a new footballing revolution?