Football for Sustainability

Sustainability is like love: a pallet full of different colours. A similar pattern also holds for another art, namely the game of soccer. It requires “talent, skill and science”. But what makes it sufficient as a game is its appeal to the larger humanity where principles of sustainability get enmeshed with sustainability centred activism across the world. Such activism has different dimensions, forms and are conducted by individuals, governments, corporates, technology firms, and institutions in their own way within the vast spectrum of – “Football for Sustainability”. In this article, Anandajit Goswami of Goalden Times, takes you through this journey of football for sustainability over time and across spaces.

The genesis of this article needs to be traced back to an event in 2008. I was in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, for my professional assignment with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. It was a Friday afternoon and like every day I was walking back home after work at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa when I saw a group of young children. They usually spend their days begging tourists for spare change, but they were doing something different that day. They were playing football with a homemade ball made up of dilapidated clothes and waste paper. The ball consumed them and made them forget about the money that usually consumed their daily lives.

I smiled inside as I watched the children play, and at the same time two words – “Football and Sustainability” were born within me for the first time: Football and Sustainability. The reason being because the children — those green warriors — converted waste paper and old clothes into an object that generated happiness. The little geniuses didn’t overcomplicate things when they created their sustainable ball, but they were courageous to go against the trend by converting their collected waste papers into a football.

Nine years down the line when I was motivated and inspired by Indranath Mukherjee of Goalden Times to write something on “Football and Sustainability”, the first thing that came to my mind was that the word “sustainability” has “sustain” and “ability” in it. It is like love with a pallet of colours where colour portrays its own narrative in frames of an artist.

Then I remembered an English Premier League event from August 2015 when fans of Chelsea, Manchester United and Newcastle took a pledge to follow sustainability strategies by cutting emissions through car- pooling and sharing on their way to away matches [1].

During that same year, Dale Vince, chairman of Forest Green Rovers- a football club that plays in the English League Two, and CEO of green energy company Ecotricity made a telling statement.

“We want to bring our message to the world of football – which is relatively untouched by eco stuff,” Vince said [1].  “Our work is on the issues of energy, transport and food; and within football you find that, like a stick of rock, written through the middle. So we decided to dive in and create the greenest football club perhaps in the world and use that as a way to reach a totally different audience” [1].

The journey of writing this article started with me organizing my thoughts within the professional domain of sustainability and including personal ideas curated over time.

So, as a part of that organization process, a question was asked: what is sustainability?. One of the several answers that emerged was that sustainability essentially translates to sustain, endure and remain diverse, productive and relevant for tomorrow.

Today, after the United Nation’s 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainability entails meeting the needs of the present without compromising the wellbeing of the future. In 2000, the word sustainability, through the Earth Charter, expanded the definition by including principles and ideas based on the “welfare of the global society”, respect for nature”, “universal human rights”, “economic justice” and a “culture of peace” [2]. These lofty goals are aimed to be attained through policies focusing on environmental protection, socially responsible behaviour, economic practices, sustainable production and consumption, conservation of energy, sustainable society, climate change mitigation and adaptation and development of sustainable technologies [2].

This beautiful game of football across the world is now generating a movement for sustainability by addressing the social, economic and environmental goals of sustainability. For a long time, it has been realized that football pitches and stadiums can lead to unsustainable consumption of energy, water and raw materials. The game has now taken a pledge to change such practices to address all of the principles of sustainability. Several real practitioner perspectives and narratives bear ample evidence towards addressing the pledge and direction on sustainability put forward by this wonderful game. Different actors across the world are already joining the movement.

The movement spans out from Rio de Janeiro’s slums where Pavegen, a London based tech firm is showcasing the potential of a renewable option: power-storing tiles [3]. Pavegen has installed 200 “kinetic-harvesting” tiles within a local football pitch in Rio’s Morro da Mineira neighbourhood. The 56 mm tiles are placed under the football pitch’s Astroturf surface and whenever a football player takes a step, the tiles flex fractionally. Each footstep of a footballer generates a power of around five watts per second. The entire system is supplemented by solar panels, which helps in illuminating the pitch and adjoining area for ten hours in the night [3].

Football for sustainability: Rio, Favela [Source:]
Football for sustainability: Rio, Favela [Source:]

Another milestone of connections between football and sustainability lies in the first organic football pitch of Gloucestershire-based football club Forest Green Rovers [4]. Through a three-year-effort, the club has eliminated all nitrogen-based fertilizers and chemicals used for maintenance of its ground. The club is now applying a range of plant-derived products, from compost tea and coconut wetting agents, to seaweed fertilizer for turf maintenance. This is also supported by an autonomously-driven mower, which creates organic mulch and fertilizes the pitch as it mows. Charcoal is also provided to the pitch to create a carbon base for bacteria and fungus [4]. The additional upfront costs of setting up organic turfs are offset in the long term by savings in the energy bills through installation of 170 photovoltaic panels catering to a capacity of 45kW. On top of that, the team’s kit is washed in phosphate-free washing powder [4].

However, from Brazil and England, if we turn toward Spain and move back a little in time, it comes out that in 2012, Real Madrid had upgraded its eleven training pitches with a new generation turf produced by Dutch cradle-to-cradle pioneer, Desso [5]. The pitches do not use any pesticides. In 2012, in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio De Janeiro, while policy makers were debating about whether or not to produce a new outcome document of “Future We Want”, which had a chapter on – “Green Economy”, some football practitioners were actually greening their turfs and were following the lines of Mahatma Gandhi – “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Desso wanted to ensure that the old pitches were reused in schools and sports clubs in the area. It started reusing components from dismantled pitches in other products [5]. Desso made a pledge to make all its artificial turf pitches, which are produced from polyethylene, polypropylene or nylon, as 100% cradle-to-cradle certified by the year 2020 [5]. In recent times, a famous club from Manchester, our very own Manchester United picked up the principle of recycling and started using recycled materials for artificial turf pitches by partnering with an Indian company called Apollo tyres [5]. Manchester United installed a pitch at its Old Trafford complex by using 2,200 recycled tyres weighing about 10 tonnes. The waste rubber, sourced from Apollo’s European subsidiary, is generally reused as a high calorific fuel in industrial ovens. The ground has been FIFA-certified recyclable pitch and is now open to the community in the neighbourhood of the club’s home ground [4,5]. So, when it comes to the history of sustainability, there has been a time and space reversal. It is interesting to note that in the past, Mahatma Gandhi called for a movement to boycott clothes from Manchester in India and move towards hand spun, Indian clothes to support local economy, and defy unsustainable patterns of consumption within the society. However, today we see collaboration between a Manchester football club and an Indian company to promote the cause of sustainability.

If the Brits are following this path, it is apparent that the Germans who are the pioneers of renewable energy application in decentralized mode will not be far away. The testimony of German commitment to sustainability lies in the fact that FC Bayern Munich, one of Germany’s top-ranking football teams, is installing 380,000 energy-efficient LEDs to create a huge “light show” at its Allianz Arena stadium. According to Bayern Munich’s official “lighting partner”, Phillips, the project will be 60% more energy efficient (and will lead to saving of about 362 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year) than the conventional lighting currently being used [6].

United States, the other power centre has already shown to the world their commitment to sustainability by building a new stadium in Santa Clara which has won the prestigious gold standard from eco-building certifier LEED. The state of the art green stadium is marked by a 400 KW solar plant for meeting the power demand of the stadium, a geothermal heat pump transferring the heat from the sun-drenched ground around the stadium to the hot water supply and a water recycling system that produces up to 1,800 gallons of grey water per minute to keep the turf fresh and clean [6].

While these individual actions are being taken at different parts of the globe, FIFA, at an institutional level, started its Football for Planet programme which is their official environmental programme aiming to mitigate the negative impact of its activities on the environment [6]. This programme started since the FIFA World Cup of 2006. In the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Local Organizing Committee (LOC) implemented projects to reduce the impact of the World Cup on the environment. FIFA and the LOC estimated the total carbon footprint of the event to be around 2.7m tonnes CO2 [6]. Out of that 251000 tonnes were controlled through operational control by means of carbon reduction projects. These emissions were largely catering to travel and accommodation of all staff, officials, teams, volunteers and guests along with emissions of venues, stadium and offices [6]. Most stadiums in Brazil were planned to achieve LEED certification for green buildings and many solar panels were installed on their roofs to generate renewable energy. FIFA and the LOC organized training courses on sustainable stadium management for all twelve stadium operators. Moreover, a new waste law in Brazil was created to manage the handling and desalination of waste. Local waste cooperatives, FIFA, the LOC and Coca-Cola together developed a waste management system for the stadiums to ensure that waste was handled properly and recycled where necessary [6]. The overall carbon footprint of 2014 FIFA World Cup was estimated to be just over 2.7 million tonnes of CO2 (tCO2e). Currently, a new Russian standard has been developed for certifying the 2018 FIFA World Cup stadiums to be in line with international standards [6].

Gandhi had realized that football can bring unity amongst the masses. Due to this foresight of merging football with social goals of sustainability, he can be regarded as one of the high profile sustainability professional, practitioner and commonly unknown passionate follower of the game in India.

Sometime back, Poobalan Govindasamy, president of the South African Indoor Football Association, provided rare insights about how Mahatma Gandhi a visionary in sustainability discourse, held football in high regard. According to him, Gandhi used the game of football to build teamwork, spiritual peace, communication platform, non-racial sporting structures through small associations like Transvaal Indian Football Association or the Klip River District Indian Football Association to unify people and build social capital. Gandhi’s involvement with football was not only limited to associations, but he even facilitated establishment of three football clubs in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg. All three were named Passive Resisters Soccer Club, as Mahatma realized that his passion for football, coupled with marginal people’s interest in the game could help his political and social agenda for sustainability.

Gandhi had realized that football can bring unity amongst the masses. Due to this foresight of merging football with social goals of sustainability, he can be regarded as one of the high profile sustainability professional, practitioner and commonly unknown passionate follower of the game in India. However, today, with the global movement on sustainability happening through football, the time has come to create several Gandhis in different parts of the world through football. Let a million flowers bloom and spread the fragrance of sustainability through football all across the world!




Cover Image Credit: Danny Choo

A Year On: 5 African Finalists of World Cup 2010

The FIFA World Cup kicked off in Africa on June 11th, 2010 and the razzmatazz that followed was a historic one. It all started when FIFA announced South Africa as hosts of the tournament on 15May 2004, beating off competition from Morocco. While the tournament wasn’t due to kick off until some years’ time, South Africa and Africa as a whole was already reaping benefits evident in tourism boom and infrastructure improvement. Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa graced the competition as Africa’s representatives. Before the tourney began, consulting firm Grant Thornton estimated that the event will contribute at least R51.1-billion to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP). Sani Lulu, then head of the Nigeria Football Federation had this to say before the start of the tournament: “Nigeria, which is competing at the World Cup, plans to open an exhibition on the sidelines of the tournament to promote investment in the oil-rich nation. We wish to showcase Nigeria and its enormous potentials via a Nigeria village at the World Cup.” Such was the anticipation of the various African participants to utilize the opportunities that the first World Cup in Africa would bring. More focus would have been on South Africa, the hosts.


I can safely say Nigeria didn’t gain much from partaking in the competition. Only notable increments were the US$1 million FIFA rewarded all participating teams for preparation costs and the US$8 million given to them for exiting the competition after the group stage. The Competition only served as a podium to highlight the numerous problems of the football nation. After a dismal display by the Nigerians, they returned home to meet a bombshell as the Nigerian president was utterly disappointed. “Mr. President has directed that Nigeria will withdraw from all international football competition for the next two years to enable Nigeria to reorganise its football.” Those were the words of Ima Niboro, Jonathan’s (The Nigerian President) senior communications adviser. The decision came a day after the executive committee of the NFF met to recap the country’s performance in which they picked up a single point and finished bottom of a group also containing South Korea, Greece and Argentina. Ultimately, Jonathan was forced to lift the ban after FIFA intervened. Barely anything has improved since then. This is manifested in the FIFA rankings. Nigeria was ranked 30th in the world and 4th in Africa after the World Cup. Now they occupy the 43rd and 6th positions, both globally and in Africa respectively.


Algeria left South Africa with a point from three matches. In the eyes of some it was a complete success seeing that participation in the competition ended a 24-year absence. Players like Djamel Mesbah and Hassan Yebda earned worldwide recognition as a result. FIFA’s decision to allow players over the age of 21 who have turned out for countries in junior football, to switch loyalties if they qualify for another senior international team has really helped in revitalizing Algerian football. This has allowed many quality players with French heritage to join the Algerian squad. Though Algeria has plummeted in the FIFA rankings since participating in the 2010 World Cup moving from 33rd position to its current 46th in the world, considerable developments in their football can’t be discounted. They too have moved two places down in the continental ranking since then, moving from 5th place to 7th place. But they have had some movement in the table being Africa’s biggest movers in the rankings in the month of April this year moving up 15 places to 40th position in the world.

Cote d’Ivoire

After being placed alongside Brazil, Portugal and North Korea in the so called “Group of Death”, not much was expected from Les Éléphants. Africa’s strongest footballing nation went out of the tournament prematurely with their heads held high even though they couldn’t make it past the group stage. That did not take anything from a Cote d’Ivoire team that has been slowly ramping up its football over the years. They have since maintained momentum, establishing themselves as Africa’s best footballing nation. They have held on to the number one slot in Africa in the FIFA rankings, moving from 26th in the world to 16th so far. The country’s success in football though has done little to quell the perpetual Ivorian political crisis as the economy is still in a mess.


World Cup 2010 was Cameroon’s sixth appearance in this event – an African record. Much was expected from the highest ranked African team, but their hopes were shattered after they failed to qualify from a tough group. The Lions were the first team to be eliminated from the World Cup after a 2-1 loss to Denmark. Cameroon’s poor outing in the World Cup meant they went down 21 places in the FIFA rankings as well as to 7th position from their previous table topping position in Africa. Ongoing leadership disputes on and off the field have led to their steady downfall in recent years. They are now languishing in 8th position in Africa.


A quarter final exit in only their second appearance meant Ghana went away with prize money of US$14 million. A very young Ghanaian team made the continent proud. Rebranding of the national team and worldwide cognizance resulted in its players becoming hot property. Notable moves after the World Cup were Asamoah Gyan’s move from Rennes to Sunderland and Kevin Prince Boateng’s move from Portsmouth to Milan via Genoa. Ghana has become the proverbial honey where bees feed on. There are football clinics where children are brought together, some well-known local and international football idols and administrators to inspire the youth to greater heights. Club sides in Europe now want partnerships with local clubs or academies in Ghana. A good example is the pact between Holland’s Feyenoord and Feyenoord academy in Ghana. Such is the growth of Ghanaian football that the dictum now is “catch the next Asamoah Gyan from the cradle.” This has led to various football talent hunts in Ghana. 

A Football Clinic in Ghana

South Africa

Though the Bafana Bafana were eliminated at the group stage, hosting the World Cup had a gargantuan impact on their economy. There was amelioration of infrastructure since a lot of money was pumped into the sector prior to the World Cup. An estimated 130,000 jobs were created in the construction, hospitality and transport industry. According to Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, 309,000 tourists visited the country for the World Cup and spent over R3.6 billion (0.5 bn $) on the economy. President Jacob Zuma confirmed that the security demands of the tournament now meant the country had an additional 40,000 police officers. A monolithic rise in reputation amongst other countries of the world can’t be left out. “World Cup may be over but we’re still revelling in the profound positive effects this one event has brought to our country,” said Sthu Zungu, President, South African Tourism, North America. The tourism industry was one of the biggest gainers. According to Grant Thornton, 96% of visitors to the World Cup confirmed that they would visit South Africa again, while 92% said they would recommend it to friends and relatives. With the World Cup a total success, South Africa has made a bold statement in security to the world at a time when terrorism has become the order of the day and violence lacerating the peace of Africa nay the world.

Urban road system around Cape Town

This speaks volumes of its credentials as a peaceful nation and a friendly clime for those with business interests. The launch of latest James Bond novel in Cape Town is evidence to the increasing awareness. On a football sense, the World Cup served as a rostrum for players from the national team to showcase their skills to the world. The flourish of the South African Premier League was one that was discernible before the World Cup and now its worldwide awareness has heightened. The various stadia used during the World Cup are now being used by club sides as the domestic league is operating at the highest standards. The availability of quality facilities which is a boon to the young aspiring footballers will mean more quality players in the nation’s national pool in the long run. Kaizer Chief’s Knowledge Musona was sold for over 1 million £ to Germany’s Hoffenheim on July 28, 2011. Such transfer fee is a feature of quality leagues. The South African Premier League is not short of partnerships with European sides – Ajax Cape Town and AFC Ajax of Holland, Supersport United and Tottenham Hotspur of England are good examples. Bongani Khumalo became the first offspring of the union between Supersport United and Tottenham on October 26, 2010 when it was announced that Khumalo would be joining Tottenham Hotspur in January 2011 from partner club Supersport United after a successful trial in September, subject to a work permit for a fee of £1.5 million.

Bongani Khumalo, product of the South African Premier League

More examples of tiptop moves from the South African premier League to Europe include Bidvest Wits’ goalkeeper Darren Keet to Belgian club KV Kortrijk in June 2011 and Ajax Cape Town’s Thulani Serero to AFC Ajax. Only a vibrant league can churn out such quality players and only quality facilities like those from the World Cup can be substrate for a vibrant league. The fact that the South African Premier League is the seventh biggest earner of sponsorship revenue among football leagues worldwide has shown that South African football is refusing to look back. They have risen from 66th to 51st so far in the FIFA rankings since hosting the World Cup. Even an Olympic bid is being mooted. In a recent development, S. Africa will replace Libya as 2013 Nations Cup hosts as the latter nation has been torn apart by violence.

Tout ensemble, South Africa and Ghana were the biggest donees amassing developments in various sectors of the country including football. The other African countries that took part were far less successful as developments have been restricted. Truth is that the 2010 World Cup has gone a long way in extricating Africa from a quandary that has seen other parts of the world view it mediocrely.


Obasa Olalekan is an ardent lover of AC Milan. He can be contacted via twitter @obsylakeside