July 22, 2019

Europe's fintechs are playing the long game

Startup football leagues are springing up across Europe — and they're a sign that the ecosystem is ready to compete globally.

Amy Lewin

5 min read

Fretlink’s five-a-side squad, which plays every week, includes CEO Paul Guillemin (second row, second from left).

A new startup trend is sweeping the continent.

No, it’s not remote working, or pets in the office, or attending unconferences.

This is something where we Europeans really, truly, have an edge.

It’s football.

Kicking off

In London, Paris and Berlin, startups and investors are coming together over the beautiful game.

Last Wednesday, the Fintech League — a tournament between eight of London’s fintech finest — hosted its inaugural awards ceremony in Shoreditch (and invited Sifted along). There was prosecco, there were bow ties, there was a red carpet.

Fintech consultancy 11:FS' team and supporters.

Meanwhile, on the same evening over in Paris, startup community and investor The Family released a video commemorating the MIFA World Cup, billed as “THE startup soccer tournament”.

A group of investors and startups, including logistics company Fretlink, freelance developer platform Comet and ride-hailing business Heetch, had all participated in a five-a-side knock-out tournament. Crypto startup Coinhouse was the ultimate victor.

The MIFA world cup.

In Germany too, VCs have been known to be partial to a bit of footie.

Call it community

There is a serious point to all this.

While the games are a bit of fun, they’re another sign that Europe’s fintechs are growing up. This is now an industry with a sports league-worth of companies, each with hundreds of employees — and there is a real community developing.

Of the world’s 29 fintech unicorns, nine are based in San Francisco, while seven are headquartered in London. Several others are based across the continent, such as N26 in Berlin and Klarna in Stockholm.

There are 61,000 people employed in UK fintech alone and increasingly successful founders and early employees from one fintech are moving on to found their own companies.

Now the big fintechs are expanding to the US, acquiring chunky numbers of customers, and continuing to raise mountains of funding, it’s exactly the time the community needs to be coming together.

The London league is doing just that, says Phoebe Lebrecht, social media manager at GoCardless.

From the outset, this was the goal of league co-organiser Anthony Marion from fintech consultancy 11:FS. “It’s a great way to bring everyone together — at least starting with London — around a shared passion,” Marion told me in March. “We all work in fintech, we all feel like we belong to something.”

1,200 supporters had turned out over successive Friday evenings, deals had been struck and people had found themselves new jobs at other fintechs.

And there was not a hint of the rivalry the media so loves to sniff out. When Seb “The Cat” Schusman, goalkeeper for 11:FS, won the (Mastercard-sponsored) Golden Glove, he was roundly applauded by the room.

It’s not all fun and games

Fintech football does, however, have its dark side. In London, there were some heated moments, a few injuries, one player left in crutches (although, admittedly, he did trip up over his own foot…)

It’s also developed a somewhat “laddy” culture.

Last week’s awards ceremony was, hands-down, the rowdiest startup scene event I’ve ever attended. (It was also the most glamorous.) I should’ve expected nothing less — this being London, and football.

But for next year’s league (oh yes, it’s getting bigger — watch this space) I’m hoping for more.

For starters, the obvious lack of women on the pitch. There were very few matches in London this year which had more than one female player on the field at once. In Paris, Fretlink was the only team to include female players (two, in fact). For a sector that’s desperate to improve diversity and often so considerate about employee branding, it’s a big oversight.


“Next season we will be encouraging more women on the pitch,” says Marion, who adds that as part of the selection process for the nine new teams joining next season, “one of the key criteria we looked at is how inclusive their squads will be, and how much diversity means to them as a company”.

Photo of Fretlink’s five-a-side squad.
Fretlink’s five-a-side squad, which plays every week, includes CEO Paul Guillemin (second row, second from left).

Secondly, that “laddy” culture might be amusing, but it’s not inclusive — for plenty of people of either gender. Startup sports teams are not competing in the Premier League; they are, despite all the social media banter and adoring pitch-side fans, competing in a professional league of a different sort — one where they represent their companies. Those companies should make sure they put on their best show (even if that doesn’t always mean scoring the most goals).

Take team Fretlink: not only does it have two whole women on the team — Marina and Lauriane — it also has players representing every department in the company: engineering, operations, marketing, sales, supply management and recruitment. Let’s have more of that.

Europe’s big moment

Fintech football embodies three areas where European startups could be a real global leader.

Firstly, of course, football. Secondly, fintech, where London startups in particular are already rivalling those in San Francisco. And finally, community-building.

Our startups are stronger as a team — when they play nicely.

Amy Lewin

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s editor and cohost of Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast , and writes Up Round, a weekly newsletter on VC. Follow her on X and LinkedIn