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The word of the week: sustainable

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In the football climate, when clubs find themselves to be devastated by a colossal mess, ruined by gross mismanagement, and made sapless by insurmountable debt, football’s false heroes know, or think they know, what word to use to cushion the hard blow: sustainable. When some of Europe’s most despicable club owners created “The Super League”, Andrea Agneilli, the Chairman of Juventus, said that the league was “putting the game we love on a sustainable footing for the long-term future”; on the (still standing) website for the (failed) Super League, “Solidarity and Sustainability” is listed as one of the crushed competition’s 4 main targets. When Derby released a statement announcing that they were going into administration last Friday, it claimed that “the irony is that the Club’s financial forecasts show the emergence of a financially sustainable picture”. Shortly before Bolton went into administration, the EFL, which had been criticised by the Bolton Supporters Trust for their belief that the club could feasibly support its own weight, stated that their “overriding objective [was] to ensure the long-term sustainability of all EFL clubs, including a strong Bolton Wanderers”. Etc. It’s football owner’s go-to word when they are faced down by their own financial wreckage. 

Enough of it. Football fans know the story all too well by now. Sustainability, anyway, more pertinently and exclusively relates to the wider discussions surrounding climate change. And finally, it was in this guise that “sustainable” re-emerged in a football context on the weekend. 

Tottenham vs Chelsea on the 19th of September 2021 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will certainly not be remembered for the day Tuchel deployed Kanté after half-time to defeat the Spurs midfield and come out as deserved winners. Instead, Tottenham vs Chelsea, 19/09/21, will likely be tagged as ‘football first ever official “net zero carbon” match’ on the archives. Sky, together with Tottenham and Natural Capital Partners, led the initiative under the title “#GameZero”, working to cut emissions from matchday activities and offset remaining carbon emissions through creating new UK woodlands and a reforestation project in East Africa. It comes under two months before COP26, an important UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. In the truest sense of the word as it is today in 2021, elite football at last showed a sign of its ability to be “sustainable”, in the environmental sense of the word.

Sky and Tottenham Hotspur join a defiant, albeit little-known, class of already-existing football fighters against climate change. Thom Rawson founded “Sustainable Football”, a new consultancy looking to help the football climate become more aware of what it needs to do to tackle climate change. He also works as the “Chief Sustainability Officer at Hanwell Town”, a role you’d hope to see in place at clubs across the country. And, of course, there’s Forest Green Rovers, owned by green-energy-enthusiast Dale Vince. Forest Green are the net-zero carbon football club of the world, though playing at League Two level. 

The football projects mentioned appear to be genuine courses of action taken, but the scale of the work being done is miniscule in comparison to the multi-billion pound operations to move players around the globe to different clubs. Where there are multi-billion pound operations being done to combat climate change in the football world, there is hypocrisy and dishonesty to take into account. FIFA and Qatar pledged to deliver a fully carbon-neutral World Cup in 2022 by “including energy efficient stadiums, low emission transportation, and sustainable waste management”, as they “aim to set a benchmark for environmental stewardship in the region”. Praising the country’s efforts would let Qatar and its money-generating crude oil sector off. It also circumvents criticism for the country’s violation of workers’ rights. 

“Sustainable”, when used in a financial context, is a misfire. It is a word used to signal a sense of safety and prosperity. In the context of despondent club statements announcing a severe sense of struggle to survive, or worse administration, it is a word that has no actual effect, no actual action, no result. It has no place there. So when people in football use “sustainable” to refer to the problems regarding climate change, let’s hope it takes a different tone. Hopefully, it does in fact result in strong action reducing carbon emissions. Otherwise, our whole human race will be going into liquidation, if you like.


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