Can FIFA become a role model for sustainable development?

It may be an overstatement to call football a religion, but it is more than a game. Football can topple governments and send nations to war (El Salvador and Honduras, in 1969). The quest for the World Cup, football’s grail, can humiliate the powerful and make superstars out of underdogs.

The game of football is embedded in many lives, communities, and economies. The “beautiful game” is accessible to all. Around 265 million players and 5 million referees and officials equal a grand total of 270 million people (4 percent of the world’s population) that are actively involved in the game of football. Football can support development by generating income from sports-related sales and services, boost international trade, create jobs, support local economic development, enhance a country’s reputation, transcend national differences, improve health and social well-being, and encourage teamwork. Most importantly, however, football serves as a global communicator that speaks a worldwide language for the sake of social good. Therefore, we should pay close attention to football on and off the pitch.

FIFA, the Swiss-based international organization that oversees football worldwide (including the World Cup), is currently mired in governance challenges. Could it credibly address the charge for sustainable development both on the field and within its ranks? Some may doubt its capability and intent; however, consider reading the latest account of FIFA’s Sustainability Report and its concern for environmental impact. This nicely illustrated report is divided into five themes:  sustainability strategy; staging a more sustainable FIFA World Cup; protecting the environment; social development through sport; making a lasting impact. The report includes a comprehensive review of the projects that were implemented under the sustainability strategy drawn up for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Overall, FIFA’s Sustainability Report is an important document that is supported by many previously unknown facts and data. Key priorities including waste management, transport, carbon offsetting and procurement, remained unchanged.

The FIFA World Cup is the biggest single-sport competition in the world. Staging the tournament entails transporting millions of people to the matches and festivities while catering to their health and safety and dealing with the large amount of waste incurred at the venues. It also means recruiting and training thousands of volunteers and delivering an event that is accessible for everyone and broadcast in over 200 countries. This scale inevitably has a remarkable impact on society and the environment of the host country.

The 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany was a game changer in FIFA’s approach to environmental impact, sustainability, and its tournaments. This new charge required an adapted approach to FIFA’s organization of the FIFA World Cup. FIFA is fully aware that organizing an international sporting event of such scale can have a detrimental impact on the environment (locally and globally). In 2006, FIFA and the 2006 FIFA World Cup LOC jointly established official campaigns to address social and environmental concerns. The environmental campaign was called “Green Goal,” a first-of-its-kind carbon reduction-and-offsetting program in which FIFA invested 400,000 euros.

For critics, the 2014 FIFA World Cup was an environmental nightmare and it wasn’t Copa Verde as advertised. Since matches were geographically dispersed across Brazil, it required construction of several new stadia and excess travel that made it one of the highest carbon footprints of any tournament. However, in spite of the difficult logistics it had to manage, FIFA’s emissions offset plan and green design features were legitimate accomplishments. The shortcoming was that FIFAs green agenda was largely restricted to the 12 stadiums where the games were played, and did not extend to the travel involved.

There is another formidable foe for football: climate change. Like many other areas of global life, football is starting to feel the impacts of climate change, leading to some adaptations and mitigations. Heat waves, changing rain patterns, floods, and drought are deteriorating football pitches, stadiums, and facilities around the world. Continued global warming is and will have direct impacts on all sports and will not be limited to football only. From amateur to professional sports, athletes, spectators, officials, and volunteers are feeling the effects of unpredictable weather patterns and the very real consequences of climate change.

Heat directly affects football performance and the welfare of all involved. Drought and changing rainfall patterns affect playing surfaces and increase costs. These range from increased water and energy use to higher insurance premiums needed to cover the increased incidence of risk and injury on harder ground. Extreme rainfall threatens short-term ground washouts, and more extensive damage to playing surfaces which also impacts maintenance and insurance costs.

The impact of climate change on football is far-reaching. Let’s take a closer look at the most recent 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. In 1950 the Brazilians hosted the World Cup for the first time. Since then not only has equipment on and off the field changed, but the average temperature for June-July has changed as well. Average temperatures in June-July have risen at a rate of 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit per decade in Brazil since 1950, a total increase of 2.0 degrees F, which converts into 1.1 degrees Celsius over 64 years. Elite football clubs and national federations may be able to adapt, but the ability to respond to climate change at local levels or in developing nations is more challenging.

Football is an important enabler of human well-being and a key form of entertainment for our global society. The FIFA Congress in Zurich on May 29, 2015 will elect a new FIFA president who will have immense influence and a healthy budget to back it up. Let’s hope that the next captain of the FIFA squad will continue leading the charge for sustainable development. A first litmus test will be at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada that will kick off in early June 2015. There FIFA will be able to prove to the world that its sustainability policies are an irreversible reaction to global expectation and consciousness for a cleaner, greener world in which future soccer players and children play the “beautiful game.”