Fans’ groups in Portugal recently took their government to court over its controversial plans to impose a fan identification card on ultras sections.

In view of this unprecedented step, Football Supporters Europe (FSE) spoke to Martha Gens, a lawyer and one of the main coordinators of the national supporters’ organisation Associação Portuguesa de Defesa do Adepto (APDA). Martha also serves on the FSE Board.

In the following interview, she provides an overview of the current situation, urges fans to put their tribal loyalties aside in the name of the common good, and explains how fellow Europeans can support APDA’s cause.

Make a donation to the crowdfunder to help cover APDA’s legal costs. 

Why did the government decide to introduce a fan ID scheme?

MG: Some years ago, there was an isolated incident where a handful of Sporting fans invaded the Academia Alcochete training complex, which led to a violent altercation. This seems to have put pressure on the government to do something to prevent the reoccurrence of such acts. Sadly, this didn’t take the form of a nuanced approach to what is, at the end of the day, a very complex issue—hence the fan ID, a measure which we used to joke was the last coke in the desert. There was no desire on the government’s part to examine and consider good practice from other countries. This is problematic because, as we have always said, the issue needs to be taken as a whole, and that requires engagement and dialogue with fans and fans’ groups.

Is the Portuguese fan ID more or less restrictive than its counterparts in the rest of Europe?

MG: We don’t think ours is any more restrictive than others, especially when you consider the Turkish example. But the framework around fans was already far too convoluted. Every group must be constituted as a legal association and duly registered with the competent authority, while providing information on all members that attend away games, and so on.

We believe this has created an a priori stereotype of football fans that bears little resemblance to reality. The fan ID is just the cherry on top. First there was collective control, and now there’s individual control. The authorities tend to forget that the more you control, the more people rebel. And so, as with similar initiatives, the ID scheme is likely to be counterproductive.

Fan IDs have failed pretty much everywhere they have been imposed. What makes the Portuguese government think theirs will be any different?

MG: That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? The government’s main argument is that it worked in Russia during the 2018 World Cup. All very well, but what they don’t understand—or refuse to acknowledge—is that we’re talking about two very different kinds of fans, and what is applicable in one context surely isn’t in another. Fans who pay crazy prices for long bus trips, matchday tickets, and season tickets struggle to comprehend why they have to yet again provide more personal information to the government body on sports violence just so they can bring a drum or flag into the stands. The only identification we’ve had to carry before is our citizen card, and surprisingly, that’s cheaper than a fan ID.

As I’ve said on previous occasions, we have a long road to walk when it comes to challenging the old-fashioned prejudice that suggests all football fans are criminals. We’ll keep working hard.

What legal options do you have at your disposal to challenge the ID scheme?

MG: APDA was consulted during the legislative process. We also wrote and published a report setting out our legal and sociological objections. Although this was a victory of sorts—it was the first time fans had their opinions taken into account in parliament—it didn’t produce the result we wanted. Nobody seemed to care. But they should. Because when they draw up new laws to regulate, say, pharmaceuticals, they listen to the experts and those who will be affected. What makes football fans so different? It’s common sense.

At this stage, we feel like we’re shouting into the ether. When politicians wave the “anti-violence” flag they get votes because the stereotypes I mentioned before persist. It’s always a good subject for them to legislate on, whether such legislation stands a chance of working or not.

So, we felt that taking this issue to the national courts may be our last shot, or at the very least, the right place to discuss it.

We’re doing this on behalf of all fans, and it’s crucial for APDA as an organisation, since an action of this kind has never been tried in Portugal. It’s important for fans to be heard.

You’ve opted to crowdfund your legal challenge?

MG: The thinking is that this is our last resort. If we didn’t try this, we’d have failed those who we seek to represent.

It is uncharted territory, legally speaking. That means we need the best lawyers. We should have a watertight argument, otherwise the opportunity will go to waste.

APDA is a non-profit organisation and we don’t charge for membership. We can manage our finances with donations and events. But this time, due to the commitment we’ve made, we felt we had to go down the crowdfunding route. After all, we want as many people as possible to be part of this historic moment. Every contribution is like hearing someone say yes, I’m against these measures and I want to join you in opposing them. At present, we have a commitment of €5,000 to cover legal fees. It’s a risk for the association, but its one worth taking.

How will you manage the donations?

MG: The donations are all going to our official bank account. Everyone who donates will be provided with all invoices relating to legal fees so we’re one hundred percent transparent. We appreciate every single donation.

How else are you opposing the measures?

MG: It’s not just APDA. In fact, for the first time in a long time, fans’ groups have put their colours to one side to fight for a common cause. We’ve seen joint banner displays, public declarations, social media campaigns. There was also a national forum which resulted in different fans’ groups signing a petition that was eventually delivered to the responsible secretary of state. 

Have you had any success so far?

MG: None so far. Apparently, nobody outside of fandom much cares, perhaps because the fan ID was sold as the ultimate fix, and an effective one at that. That’s why it’s so important to use this opportunity to put forward our arguments.

What’s the position of clubs? And how, if at all, are they engaging with fans?

MG: As far as we know, most of the clubs back the scheme. But there have been no fans at Portuguese games since the pandemic struck, and clubs have yet to clarify who will need a card and how the system will be administered. In our view, clubs should be a lot more proactive. There’s a real risk—a likelihood even—that clubs will lose fans at home and, above all, away. They’ll realise it too late, after the fan ID has come into effect. The impact on smaller clubs that rely on ticket sales for the bulk of their revenue will be significant.

How do you think all this will play out? Where will Portuguese fans be in five years?

There are two possible futures. Either: the court case is decided in our favour—in favour of waving flags and banging drums in the stands and an independent fan culture—and in five years we’ll be sat around the table with other stakeholders, or: we lose the case and every stakeholder has realised that the fan ID was as outmoded and ineffective as we predicted, but chances to build meaningful dialogue between fans and other stakeholders have been missed. We hope, and believe, the first future will prevail.

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