Case for the Planet: Football Needs to Think

By any football club’s standards, 2020 was a catastrophic year. Pandemic-driven shortfalls caused by the absence of fans has left clubs across Europe cash-strapped. The continent’s superclubs are no exception. Last month, The Financial Times reported that Inter Milan are rushing to raise $200m in emergency funds to cope with a €102m loss last season. In Catalonia, the world’s highest earning club are in crisis, off-loading players and staff to mitigate the effects of amassing debt and an income shortfall of over €200m for the 2019-20 season. 

In an attempt to safeguard their finances from any future catastrophe, the elite have again breathed life into the prospect of a European Super League. The proposal, first propagated by Silvio Berlusconi, has lurked in the shadows of European football since the late 80’s. Aggrieved by the prospect of Real Madrid facing Diego Maradona’s Napoli as early as the first round of the 77-78 European Cup, Berlusconi denounced the competition as an ‘historical anachronism’, that lacked the ‘modern thinking’ to foresee the glamour and profitability of regularly pitting Europe’s elite against each other. UEFA later snubbed Berlusconi’s proposals, but the essence of profitability, broadcasting hegemony and ever-expansion lay at the core of its successor, the UEFA Champions League. 

Art by Charbak Dipta

Three decades later, Europe’s elite are after an even bigger piece of the footballing pie. Despite already laying claim to nearly 30% of total market revenue, the founding 15 Super League members, led by the European Club Association, are attempting to do away with the Champions League, replacing it with a ‘closed league’ that sits beyond football’s pyramid. The motivations for which are apparent: more viewers, larger broadcasting deals, and even more lucrative sponsorship payments. 

Yet when Berlusconi made his remarks, kickstarting an era of rapid and continual growth, the future of European football lay in a different dimension. Thirty years on, having enjoyed the greatest standard of football ever played, catalysed by globalisation and technological advancements, but leaving a fragmented football pyramid and a sizable contribution to impending ecological disaster in its wake, the future of our game faces some very different questions. The central one being; what place does football have in a carbon-neutral world? 

A report published by David Goldblatt on sport’s contribution to climate change estimates that sports’ carbon output is around 30 million tonnes annually, equivalent to Denmark or twice that of Ethiopia. Football makes up a sizable chunk of this figure, emitting around 5 million tonnes of carbon annually, equivalent to the annual energy usage of around 2 million homes. 70% of football’s carbon emissions result from spectator travel, with the most devoted fans often travelling weekly to opposite ends of their respective country. Worse still, Europe’s top clubs have slowly found their way onto bucket-lists across the globe, with pre-pandemic levels of ‘sports tourism’ at an all time high. Global attraction to the game has seen international tournaments become the chief culprits of greenhouse emissions, with the 2018 World Cup responsible for producing 2.16 million tonnes of carbon, and that’s excluding the environmental cost of the 5 stadiums Russia built especially for the event.

What’s more, the environmental impacts do not stop at the turnstile. Irrigation and sanitation systems mean that larger stadia can require anywhere between 12 – 50 million gallons of water per year, equivalent to the annual water usage of 112 – 467 families, depending on stadia size and attendance figures. Once inside the ground, the dizzying advertising hoardings, vast scoreboards and floodlit concourse, all broadcast around the world on any number of cameras, mean that bigger venues can consume as much as 25,000 kWh per matchday, enough to power over a dozen homes for a year. Meanwhile, the array of hot and cold beverages on offer at half-time, a tradition for many spectators, leaves behind mounds of waste of up to 100 tonnes on more frequented matchdays. This whole fan-experience combined, according to one study, sees attendees generate a footprint 7 times greater than in their everyday lives. 

On the pitch, whether football and it’s governing bodies like it or not, changing climates are rapidly affecting the way we play, and watch, sport. At the 2018 US Open, as temperatures soared to 49 degrees, tens of spectators were hospitalised, and 5 players were forced to retire from the court for heat-related reasons. An average temperature increase of 2.7 degrees in parts of Australia has already led to calls for the boxing-day test match to be moved to a more tolerable date. Rising global temperatures and unusual weather patterns are pushing sporting bodies to think of quick-fix solutions to an increasingly pressing problem. Water breaks were added at both the Women’s World Cup in France, and the African Cup of Nations in Egypt to cope with sweltering heats. Even more worryingly, mapping technology demonstrates how at the current trends, 23 of England’s 92 league clubs can expect annual flooding of their grounds by 2050, the worst of which awaits Grimsby, whose Blundell Park will find itself under the new North Sea. 

But refreshment breaks, and rescheduling, only plaster a wound that continues to get deeper. Football must truly reckon with its carbon footprint. But for a pastime as ubiquitous as football, that for so long has been dictated by only growth and profitability, one must ask, where does it start? A start, as Tim Walters points out in The Blizzard, would undoubtedly be to reject more footballing expansion. Football can no longer afford to ask; who will watch? And more importantly, who will pay? But a more serious conversation must take place, about what is possible within the confines of carbon-neutrality, and what, is not. The Super League’s aims of replacing UEFA’s 125-game tournament (216 including lesser-attended qualifiers) for 193 high-octane, carbon-guzzling games, that require more aviation, higher mounds of waste, vaster car parks and more single-use paraphernalia would only oil the wheels on the road to ecological devastation. While data is sparse, working on an estimate of the average Super League game producing 3000 tonnes of carbon, a generous one-third of the 2019 Champions League Final, the tournament will produce 540,000 tonnes of carbon annually, three times that of the Premier League, which will continue to sandwich Super League fixtures. Once you factor in the proposed plans for qualifiers, and planned knock-out fixtures for the top 8 teams, that figure becomes increasingly more ominous. 

While the Super League’s plans remain only proposals, each alternative is similarly reckless. UEFA’s response to losing its most prestigious tournament, despite its participation in the UN Sport for Climate Action since 2016, and although imperfect, pledging to offset emissions produced by international tournaments, has been equally expansionary. Should the Champions League see off pressure from the Super League, UEFA’s new format promises a ‘swiss-style’ competition, which will expand the number of participating teams from 32 to 36, in a league-style system that will increase the total number of fixtures by 100. As far as the planet is concerned, it’s all bad news. 

Football and its policy makers, to use Frank Herbert’s quote, can no longer afford to allow their ambitions ‘to remain undisturbed from reality’. While a few basic restructurings would not suffice in finding football’s place in the future of our planet, a joint push to reject more football would set the precedent for the green revolution that football, and society, must undergo. Although the game may encourage stoicism over practicality, and suspicion over reason, it is the latter that must lay at the centre of football’s reform. With this, more questions will arise, carbon-budgets, ownership-structures, the game’s reliance on petrochemical sponsorship, and should we make sufficient steps to carbon-neutralise now, these issues can be tackled more seriously further down the line. 

More promisingly, the last 12 months has shown us football’s capacity for rapid and wholescale change. Although the pandemic presents an opportunity to reassess our game, it also serves as a warning for the catastrophe that comes with deforestation and the destruction of the environment. Last Autumn, Derek Thompson wrote an article in The Atlantic about the Great Urban Comeback, and how off the back of catastrophe, the modern city was shaped. To paraphrase Thompson, when New York suffered the Great Blizzard of 1888, it did not respond by stockpiling shovels, but instead fundamentally rethought the design of a city, building an entire infrastructure of underground power and transit. Football too, should look around, take stock, and use calamity to build a brighter, greener future.


Special mention to Football For Future, who are doing incredible work for promoting sustainability within the game.

James Beardsworth

James is a freelance football journalist based in Moscow. He is passionate about football on the fringes of Europe and how the modern game is shaped by differing political landscapes.