How sustainable is European football?

For a game that involves nothing more than 22 people kicking a ball full of air around some grass, football can arouse some very strong passions. There are other games that involve slightly more players or slightly less kicking, passing, kicking and passing or bouncing a ball across grass or a court but none of them are quite as popular as football.

No wonder newspapers, TV and radio news and sports bulletins have been dominated by the story of the 12 “top” football clubs breaking away to form a new “competition” called the European Super League (ESL). Needless to say, some of the “top” clubs aren’t. And as for “competition”? A league where players competed against the same teams week in, week out for a meaningless trophy but none can be relegated? Was that really sustainable?

Which brings us neatly to an issue which seems to have been overlooked in the planning of the ESL: the climate crisis. To be fair, it’s not just this competition, it’s something that has been continuously ignored for years through the relentless drive for more tournaments with more teams spread across greater distances.

In the days of my youth, there were two major football club competitions in Europe: the European Cup and the Cup Winners Cup. Participants were limited to the champions from European countries and the winners of their Cup competitions. They were knockout competitions, so there were a limited number of matches.

In the 1968 European Cup, for example, 32 teams took part and the winners (Manchester United) played nine matches. Manchester United fans had to travel to away games four times. They didn’t have to fly to the final because it was held at Wembley in London.

Compare that to the Champions League and the league-based system introduced in 1997 which features 32 teams in eight leagues. Overall, there are 80 more away games in the tournament than under the old system (111 compared to 31). Those numbers are similar for the Europa League, which replaced the Cup Winners Cup.

Proposed changes to the Champions League, due to take effect from 2024, would feature 36 teams playing 10 games each before proceeding to a knockout stage, leading to a huge increase in away games (as many as 199). Again, that will require a lot more travel for teams and their fans.

From a climate change perspective, the new formats proposed for the Champions League and Europa League are woeful, completely ignoring the impact that more travel for teams and fans would have on the environment.

If the ESL had achieved lift off, the proposed format for that competition envisaged 99 away games, fewer than for the existing Champions League. This means that an argument could be made that the ESL would have reduced the amount of travel if it superseded the Champions League and Europa League, especially with six clubs based in England.

It says something about the way football has been run that a proposal that sought to create an elitist tournament with guaranteed eternal participation for 15 clubs in Europe may have turned out to be environmentally less damaging than the existing format.

Other sports are going through similar changes. In rugby, for instance, the European Rugby Champions Cup requires fans and teams to travel from and to England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy. The European Challenge Cup involves a similar format and level of travel while the Pro 14 incorporates teams from South Africa alongside those from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy.

In an ideal world, the impetus would be to try and put a stop to the relentless packaging and consumption of sport by returning to straightforward knockout tournaments. This would alleviate travel and its associated damage to the climate by significantly reducing the number of away matches.

That’s probably not going to happen because it’s not an issue tournament organisers take seriously. From an emissions perspective and taking it to extremes, the best scenario would be for no fans to travel to sports stadia for any game, be it football, rugby, basketball, American football, baseball or Gaelic games. To a certain extent, we’ve had that for large chunks of 2020 and 2021. The problem is that while it might reduce the amount of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere, it also sucks all the atmosphere out of the games.

So what could be done? Well, if our priorities were better balanced, there would be a legal requirement for owners of sporting tournaments and the clubs taking part to offset the CO2 emissions generated by those competitions, including travel by the teams and fans to away games. That might help them to appreciate the true environmental cost of the competitions and make them think twice before suggesting formats that blithely increase the number of away games.

It might also help clubs to better understand the value of the “atmosphere” that fans generate at grounds if they were made aware of the environmental cost associated with getting them there. It’s true that without fans, football can be soulless and empty and crowds are an intrinsic part of the experience but is it really beyond the bounds to ask clubs to mitigate the environmental costs of having them there?

We spend a lot of time and energy focused on different types of balls being kicked, passed or bounced across a field or a court in the name of sport. Over the last week, many of us have spent a lot of time discussing what could be very drastic changes to how and where those balls are going to be kicked around fields in Europe. Sadly, we don’t seem to care anywhere near as much about the changes affecting the ball we live on.