Ewald Lienen: Football is ‘by definition political’

Ewald Lienen, here still coach at AEK Athens, stands for political football. [EPA | Spyros Chorchoubas]

German football veteran Ewald Lienen is convinced that football is political and bears social responsibility. Today, the technical director of FC St. Pauli is committed to climate protection, and not only on the pitch. In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, Lienen explains how he combines football with climate protection.

Since May 2017, Ewald Lienen has been the technical director of FC St. Pauli and is also an open supporter of the “Parents for Future” movement. He has played professional football for Arminia Bielefeld and Borussia Mönchengladbach and was the head coach for FC St. Pauli from 2014 to May 2017. 

When did you start becoming active in climate protection?

Climate protection is only one aspect of the necessary sustainability in our societies, even if it is essential for survival. For the St. Pauli club, ecological issues such as the installation of electric charging points, the creation of bee colonies and the elimination of disposable plastic on our stadium grounds have always played an important role in recent years. However, the worldwide discourse and the ever-increasing threat to our livelihoods from climate change have also led to an increase in our activities.

Football is often described as a “climate sinner” but clubs are increasingly trying to make a more sustainable impact. Do you think enough is happening in German football?

In general, efforts must be stepped up in all areas of society in many respects, including football or our football clubs, which are only part of the whole. The prevailing thinking in the categories of growth and ruthless profit maximisation, which has brought us to where we are now. This must be replaced by the principles of sustainable management, climate protection and distributive justice–in other words, in the broadest sense of social and societal responsibility for all.

Who is responsible here – individuals or companies?

This applies to individuals, but also to all organisations and companies, including football clubs. The related issues are primarily questions of our energy consumption, mobility associated with attending matches, the avoidance of waste – in particular disposable plastic – and the use of reusable deposit cups, and in particular the sustainable production of merchandising articles.

One often hears that politics has no place on the pitch. How do you see that?

Football is the number one sport, highly relevant to society and therefore by definition political. The fact that you don’t necessarily make political statements during a game is banal and also applies to other types of work, although even this is not true. To declare football generally apolitical is one of the top ten most stupid statements you can make.

Our whole life takes place in the socio-political contexts in which we operate, and in the light of current developments, all of these should be put to the test. The challenges we face in football are therefore no different from those in all other areas. Just as more and more companies in the business world are realising that sustainability must be implemented, so must we in football.

Apart from the laudable actions of individual clubs – are there any concrete ideas as to how German football as a whole could be made structurally more sustainable?

Yes, you could take an important step with the licensing requirements. Our former managing director Andreas Rettig and the club itself demand that–in addition to economic performance, proof of a youth performance centre and administrative, media technology and infrastructure standards–sustainability and social responsibility should also be made licensing requirements. This would be an important and unavoidable approach that does justice to the exemplary character and charisma of our football.

Is St. Pauli more open to environmental protection compared to other clubs?

We as FC St. Pauli certainly find it easier to gain acceptance for uncomfortable measures among our fans, for example in the changeover to the reusable deposit system. The club has been living its social and increasingly also ecological responsibility for years, for example through projects and initiatives of the employees from our CSR department.

But we also see many initiatives from the fan scene and demands from our members, such as for example the sustainable production of our merchandising products, which has now been largely implemented. In addition, we are developing joint projects on environmental protection with sponsors or partners such as Levi’s, Kiezstrom and in particular, the Techniker Krankenkasse health insurance company.

Do you think that fan clubs need to be more involved in sustainability efforts, for example, to address the issue of transport at away games? 

Definitely yes, because mobility is an important, if not the biggest, CO2 aspect of football. Whenever possible, our professional team has been travelling by train to away games for years, and many of our supporters do so anyway. But this cannot be a substitute for the fact that we need sustainable mobility concepts for everyone. A good example of this is the guarded bicycle cloakroom we have set up with a partner so that even more fans can come to us by bike.

Is the club also active outside of football and its own sustainability?

Yeah, we’re trying to raise awareness. The campaigns #netzgegenplastik (web against plastic) and #waldverbesserer (forest improvement) called for personal action. In the second campaign, we support the organization “Plant-for-the-Planet” founded by the young Felix Finkbeiner, who created an app that plants trees worldwide in a variety of reforestation projects.

But I also see more and more efforts and increasing acceptance in many other clubs to adequately address the issues of environmental protection, sustainability and climate change, for example, Werder Bremen, Schalke 04, Mainz 05, TSG Hoffenheim, FC Augsburg or SC Freiburg.

You are also active outside the association, for example, you support the initiative “Parents for Future.” What success do you expect from this?

With the actions of “Fridays for Future,” the world was finally awakened by the young generation to wake up and do something before it is too late. And this despite the fact that for decades we have known scientifically that if we don’t change anything, we will inevitably be heading for that point. Sheer greed, ruthlessness and indifference have let it come to this. With the actions of initiatives such as “Parents for Future,” one can only point out connections and make suggestions. What must happen now is that we act, review our own lifestyle and increase the pressure so that sensible, sustainable and fair legislation is finally enacted. Incidentally, we can only be satisfied when the climate is saved.

You were quoted in Die Welt newspaper as saying: “I am ashamed that my generation did not act sooner.” Are you currently trying to make up for that oversight?

I can only speak of myself personally and my own feelings. I, too, have already known many things, but like so many others, I have allowed myself to be discouraged from taking a more active stance on the subject by focusing on my professional commitments. If I only realised a little over a year ago that a then 9-year-old Felix Finkbeiner founded his organization “Plant-for-the-Planet” over 10 years ago, that in the meantime over 13 billion trees have been planted, and that I and many others have left him virtually alone, then I can only feel shame and remorse.

My current professional situation as a representative of the social and socio-political values of my association now allows me to work full-time and time-consuming for the right things. I don’t know if I can make up for what I missed by doing so, but I will try to make my contribution.

If you had one wish from the government, what would it be?

As an athlete, I have learned that it is no good just to wish for something, but that it is better to set goals and work towards them. One goal, for example, is to demand the best from myself before I turn to others, because I am only in control of myself. But behavioural changes only on the individual level are not enough in total to bring about a fundamental change. That is why I expect our government and the political leaders to set intelligent standards, limits and guard rails with forward-looking legal regulations to make climate protection and distributive justice a daily routine in a new circular economy.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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