Hovering just above, using satellite view, on Google maps there appears to be little remarkable about the modest football ground on the Southern edge of Caen: a small clubhouse, a white rail around the perimeter and two dugouts. It is no different from hundreds of thousands of others across France, across Europe. For a few short years however, it was this ground which was the scene of an experiment (dubbed l'adventure' by those involved) which had the potential to transform not only the way in which football cubs are governed, but more importantly to create radically new relationship between fans and club.
Web FC began life as the brainchild of P.E Teacher and technology enthusiast Frédéric Gauquelin who came up with the idea one March evening in the year 2000. Within two years his vision, to create a club which was 100% managed by its fans via the internet, would become a reality. Kicking-off at the beginning of the 2002-03 season the clubs website allowed entraînautes – a play on the French for Web Surfer and Coach – to log-on and make decisions on almost any aspect of the day-to-day running of the club including: training schedules, set-piece takers, tactics and most importantly team selection. A points system which rewarded decisions – such as picking players who performed well - allowed registered participants to climb the ranking scale, with each step-up in ranking providing greater decision making power, from the very lowest rank of 'Debutant' to the highest 'Directeur Technique' - a status reserved for an elite few.
It was a concept which would prove remarkably popular, seeing a rapid growth in take-up; In the first season there were just 100 entraînautes however, by 2005 the number was in excess of 13 000, with an online community coalescing in forums, chatrooms and blogs. This growth was helped along by a healthy media interest in the unique concept and mirrored the growth of internet use as the internet became mainstream (according to figures from the International Telecommunications Union between 2002 and 2005 the number of French internet users rose from 30 to 43 per cent of the population). The borderless nature of the web also saw entraînautes spread across 87 separate countries enabling Web FC to be truly unique in being the only club in the world managed jointly by, among others, a provincial French Primary school teacher and an International Football Referee from Uruguay.
And their decisions had worked out well. On the pitch the wisdom of the crowd had propelled the amateur team of teachers, students and estate agents – nicknamed the 'wébiens' - from the fifth to the second tier of the regional District du Calvados league via successive promotions. Hailing his model Gauquelin had even remarked that the system had eliminated some of the problems inherent in running football clubs through by-passing personality politics as well as proving attractive to players through providing them with a celebrity status more akin to that enjoyed by a top professional.
As the 2005/06 season began the future indeed appeared promising for the club, yet by 2007 Web FC had ceased to exist, the adventure at a premature end. How had its fortunes changed so dramatically?
The clubs initial success had brought it to a crossroads. 2004/05 had been the first season not marked by promotion - though the B team had achieved promotion to the third tier - and it was becoming clear that further progression required more serious investment, particularly in the technical infrastructure. Anticipating the desires of entraînautes for even greater involvement top of Gauquelin's wish list was the provision of a live-feed for games (entraînautes could only see an edited highlights package making it impossible to make in-game decisions based upon the flow of the game) along with the provision of text voting, a women's side and even a TV channel.
The problem however, was finding the necessary finance. Although Web FC had gained sponsorship from Adidas, EA, French internet provider Wanadoo and RTL this support was mainly in-kind, far short of the 300 000 Euros Gauquelin estimated were required to fulfil his ambitions. For Gauquelin the problem attracting sponsorship was due to a paradox; The club had, he reasoned, the profile of a Ligue 2 club, yet played in a regional league. In short it was too small a club for big sponsors, and had too big a profile for small ones.
With the continued absence of the kind of Roman Abramovich figure Gauquelin had wished for the club was locked in a struggle to find a sustainable business model. In the meantime appeals were made to entraînautes to donate to the cause. Gauquelin however, continued to resist temptation to charge entraînautes for membership, ruling this out as potentially harmful to the clubs development.
Other problems were also engulfing the club. In the summer of 2005 suggestions made online that some players had not paid the club for the cost of their licences led Gauquelin to issue an angry response; Politics it seemed could never be fully absent. On the field things also took a turn for the worse: despite remaining in contention for much of the 2005/06 season a disappointing run of results towards the end led to the team finishing in 4th place, 10 points off a promotion spot. Consigned to a third season in the second tier, one entraînaute blamed the slump on ongoing issues with poor levels of attendance at training sessions which had dogged the club for some time and was, they felt, having an impact on the ability of the side to play as a unit. They were also critical of other entraînautes who had continued to select a player despite their absence at training sessions and escalating the issue.
For Gauquelin the struggle seemed to have proved too much and fears grew among entraînautes in the summer of 2006 that the end was close. The fate of the side hung in the balance as the players attended a meeting ahead of the start of the new 2006/7 season however, hope emerged triumphant as it was agreed the club would continue with Gauquelin – who would remain in a role of developing the website – being replaced as club president by the sides full-back, Caen estate-agent Julien Del Bianco.
Although the uncertainty had seen a number of players depart The wébiens got off to a good start, reaching the third stage of the prestigious Coupe de France following a 4-0 win against fellow 2nd division side ES Gouville. In the league however, the side could only manage two wins in their first eight games, and were on the receiving end of an 8-0 drubbing by Olympique Lion-sur-Mer. It was hardly promotion form and with the club facing difficulties in the recruitment department results failed to improve. The B team, for their part, was suffering even more going down to both a 9-2 defeat at the hands of Mouen and an 11-1 loss to Baventais in February 2007. With the club still failing to attract sufficient sponsorship the entraînautes who had collectively put so much time and effort into the club could only look on helplessly as Web FC limped over the finish line in 7th place. It was there that Gauquelin's dream finally came to an end. The French Football Federations website recording the precise date of the clubs demise as the 14th of September 2007.
The key question is: was Web FC simply ahead of its time, or moreover was it of its time? At the turn of the millennium there was, in the US, a popular notion of using the internet to transform democracy by allowing citizens to participate in decision making through 'electronic town halls'– an idea first floated during the 1992 presidential election by Ross Perot, but which now lies largely forgotten. The early years of the internet were also a time when idealistic optimism about the possibilities of the new technology briefly exceeded more down-to-earth considerations such as financial sustainability, as many investors found to their cost. It is a question to which there is, as of yet, no clear answer, but as the traces of Web FC are progressively claimed by the digital undergrowth it is one which will determine whether the small club from Caen will be one day be widely celebrated as a trailblazing pioneer, or if it will forever remain an obscure, but interesting, footnote in the story of football.
Image supplied by Alexander Koch.