As temperatures rise and the likelihood of extreme weather events increases, football has discovered a new passion for sustainability. Could climate adaptation enter the sporting limelight?
“Of the 92 league teams in England, 23, almost one in four, can expect partial or total annual flooding of their stadiums by 2050,” writes football analyst David Goldblatt in his 2020 report, adding that football fields as a whole were faced with a severe threat of extreme weather events.
The German town of Roitzheim has learned that lesson the hard way. The small town in the Eastern German state North Rhine-Westphalia once boasted a new football ground, complete with a synthetic pitch and dreams of moving up a league.
Those dreams were washed away by the horrific floods that devastated the region in the summer of 2021.
“The flood event of July 14/15 has left unimaginable traces,” wrote the town’s football club SC Roitzheim on its website. The club “has lost almost everything in one fell swoop.”
Overall, the floods in Germany alone caused more than €29 billion in damages. Those were felt dearly by sporting fields, which were heavily hit.
But with climate experts warning that the likelihood of extreme weather events is on the rise, the SC Roitzheim probably won’t be the last victim, nor will it necessarily be a flood next time.
When temperatures approach 40° Celsius, playing football becomes nearly impossible.
“This is a huge issue beyond professional sport. What will it be like for grassroots footballers in equatorial Africa? Playing during the day is going to become impossible,” Goldblatt told Planet Football.
“Spectators and athletes are at risk of heat-related circulatory collapse or, in extreme cases, sunstroke and heat stroke,” warned Tim Meyer, sports physician of the German national team.
Awareness on the rise
The global football association FIFA has clearly recognised the challenge posed by having to adapt to rising temperatures.
FIFA would aim to “adapt football regulations and activities to be more resilient to current and anticipated impacts of climate change,” explained its president Gianni Infantino at COP26 in Glasgow on 3 November.
Adaptation is one of the four main pillars of FIFA’s climate strategy, designed to enable the organisation to reach net-zero emissions by 2040, alongside education, investment and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
As extreme weather events continue to affect wider parts of the population, those primarily interested in football will likely become aware of the implications of climate change as their favourite sport continues to be affected.
Extreme weather events can also drive awareness among football fans. “It’s not a secret that football is a massive tool, and you can reach a lot of people,” said Antonia Hagemann, CEO of European football fan organisation SD Europe.
But despite an increase of awareness, there are differences in what football executives are able to do.
In the case of high temperatures, playing games on other dates or later at night, adding sun protection and disbursing water are the key recommendations, according to the German football association DFB sports commission.
But in the case of floods, significant refurbishes are often necessary to prevent the worst. In England, three football pitches and a cricket pitch will benefit from a £54 million (€63.46m) flood protection scheme built for the towns of Preston and South Ribble.
For others, flood protection will come too late. As the hard-hit SC Roitzheim rebuilds, one thing is clear: its next football field must be situated higher than its old one, Rainer Schütz, head of the club’s board, told FAZ.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]