The Times: If football cared about climate it would take lead, not money
It is always Cristiano Ronaldo and the two Coca-Cola bottles that come to mind. You may remember: at the Euros two years ago, Ronaldo sits down at a press conference table with the pair of apparently offending Coke bottles situated in front of him. He moves the bottles out of the picture, holds a bottle of water clearly in view, and says one word: “Agua”. And therein did Coca-Cola’s market value dip by $4 billion. That is the power of football for you.
Ronaldo came to mind in the week after a couple of conversations in Canada. Two Canadian cities — Vancouver and Toronto — are part of the North American co-hosting deal for the Fifa 2026 World Cup. An issue has arisen, however, overwhether these cities are actually going to be able to host teams properly. They can host matches, but do they have adequate facilities for training camps?
You would have thought that due diligence would have been done on this a long time ago. Fifa insists that no decisions have been made, but Canadians close to the situation believe that the governing body is turning against them and that, rather than being based in their country, teams are going to have to fly in and out from the US, another of the tournament co-hosts, instead.
I spoke to Madeleine Orr, who is assistant professor of sport ecology at the University of Toronto. Given that the flying in and out option isn’t very ecological, she isn’t exactly impressed. “It isn’t a case of not having the training facilities,” she says. “It’s more: do they match the glitzy ones in the US?”
This is very much Orr’s subject. She has a book out next year, Warming Up: How Climate Change is Changing Sport, and she certainly isn’t impressed with Fifa’s role in this, because that is one where sport is changing the climate. “Fifa has for years claimed that it cares about the planet,” she says. “Just be honest. If you are not going to care about sustainability, don’t pretend to.”
There are plenty of studies about how flying in and out of Canada would be only one tiny contribution to the doomsday future. The United Nations, for instance, last year quoted a study stating that by 2050, almost one in four English Football League stadiums are projected to be either partially or completely flooded every year.
If Ronaldo can influence a share price just by moving two drinks bottles, you wonder what football could do if it really cared. If it really cared, then of course Fifa would never have alighted on a World Cup in 2030 that will be staged across three continents.
After the 2030 announcement, Fifa released a statement insisting that it would “take all required measures to mitigate the environmental impact”, which you may have been tempted to take at face value — until a few days later, when my Times colleague Martyn Ziegler broke the story that Fifa is set to complete a ten-year sponsorship deal with the Saudi state-owned oil giant Aramco, the value of which will rise to $100 million (£79 million) a year. Of course, whether the Aramco deal and the awarding of the hosting of the 2034 World Cup are connected is anyone’s guess.
In any case, Fifa lost the right to be taken at face value on this subject after the Qatar World Cup, which it claimed would be carbon neutral. Six months after that tournament, the advertising regulator in Switzerland, where Fifa has its HQ, ruled that Fifa had misled consumers and stated that it must “refrain in future from making the contested allegations”.
In 2018, when the UN released a Sports for Climate Action Framework, Fifa was one of the first signatories. Maybe now is the time to withdraw its name.
Now, yes, you’re right, this column is picking on Fifa, which may be unfair because big sport globally has a pathetic track record for its care of the environment. Sport has an association with so many great things — health, teamwork, elite performance — so it is no surprise that advertisers want to pay big bucks to have their brands linked to it. And sport just says: yes, thank you. Is it time to say no?
In October, the Sport Positive summit debated whether sport should disengage from fossil fuel sponsorship. It wasn’t just climate activists present, it was clubs, federations and agencies, but when this was put to the vote, 84 per cent voted to disengage. Then, just as the summit was closing and everyone was getting their coats to go, the Fifa 2030 hosting news broke. So it might be a nice idea to make progress, but no one can lead it quite like football.
This goes back to the power of football, to Ronaldo and those two Coke bottles. There are few movements in the world with the influence of football. Footballers can take a knee; one single footballer can change government policy to bring in free school dinners.
There was a time when sport feared that it would struggle without tobacco sponsorship, but those concerns were quickly allayed. Other sponsors rapidly filled the space. It is hardly likely, then, that Fifa would struggle without Aramco, but just imagine the power of the statement if Fifa insisted on only taking a renewable energy sponsor instead — and then if it insisted that national football federations drop fossil fuel sponsorship too.
This is slowly happening. Legislation in France is set to prohibit advertising for fossil fuel energy products; Amsterdam already has done. You may not have known that, but think about the headlines and the reach of the message if the hot-air politicians struggling to make an impact at COP28 this week were joined by Fifa, by footballers, by Lionel Messi, by David Beckham saying that football was against oil.
There is an option here. Instead of taking the money, football could take the lead.