Summer tour in a far-off place – is Chelsea v Arsenal in the US really necessary?

FOOTBALL clubs talk of a commitment to ecological issues and a desire to be carbon neutral and proactive about emissions. With this in mind, the pre-season fixture lists, notably the summer jaunts of some Premier League clubs, look a little extravagant, although some have gone to considerable lengths to ensure they appear very responsible.

Take Manchester United, who have purchased more than 1,800 tonnes of “carbon offsets” to cover all flights by players and club staff for their tour of Thailand and Australia. Most people won’t know what carbon offsets are, but United assured everyone they recognise the impact of international travel on climate change. The purchase of the offsets eases any PR pressure United might have experienced, but emissions are still emissions and how long does it take to neutralise emissions?

The carbon offsets will be drawn from the Yarra Yarra Biodiversity Corridor situated in Western Australia. United have achieved 13 consecutive years of reduction in carbon emissions and is ranked among the top five most sustainable football clubs in the Premier League.

All clubs seem to have an environmental policy and include in their annual accounts statistics and progress reports on performance in this sphere. Chelsea, for example, have worked on offsetting carbon emissions by planting 3,500 trees at their training ground. Tottenham, early in 2022, committed to be carbon neutral by 2040. They also revealed a goal of having only 23% of their fans travelling to home matches by car. This would certainly depend on the quality of public transport which in England lags behind much of Europe.

In this age of global tension and conflict, macro-economic turmoil, oil price volatility and climate deterioration, surely we should be looking to reduce unnecessary air travel?

However, Liverpool and Tottenham are the most sustainable clubs according to the BBC/UN compiled Green League 2021, both clubs also signing up to the United Nations’ Race to Zero initiative. They are two of the five major clubs (as per Deloitte’s Football Money League) who have signed the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework Signatory. The others in this year’s report were Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Arsenal.

Unsurprisingly, the clubs with the most resources are at the top end of the Green League, although Southampton, Brighton and Norwich City are placed in the first eight. However, the most “green” football club in the world, judged by FIFA, has been named as Forest Green Rovers of England’s League One (2022-23). FGR are a relatively modest outfit, but their efforts to be a fully sustainable club are mightily impressive and should be replicated across English football. It may be easier to achieve at a lower level on a smaller scale, but it has to be remembered it was not so long ago FGR were a non-league club.

There has to be a discussion around the wisdom of clubs venturing to Asia and the US for a pre-season tour, a meet and greet exercise to build the global franchise of the respective clubs. Understandably, the fans in these countries love to see their heroes – witness the welcome Liverpool received in Asia – but Liverpool will be playing, amongst others, Manchester United and Crystal Palace, Chelsea will face Arsenal in the US and Manchester United also have meetings with Crystal Palace and Aston Villa. Obviously this is also about responding to the popularity of the Premier League in places like Bangkok and Singapore, but is it REALLY necessary. Surely, in this age of global tension and conflict, macro-economic turmoil, post-pandemic employment issues, oil price volatility and climate deterioration, we should be looking to reduce unnecessary air travel? A flight from London to Sydney, for example, produces 1.79 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. A Boeing 747 jet emits 100-150 grams of carbon dioxide per mile, per person.

Perhaps they would be better advised to stay closer to home and use alternatives to long-haul flights? Maybe games against junior clubs in their own country to help boost the football eco-system in which they live? Across Europe, many clubs opt for summer training camps in Austria and other lush countries, with friendly games against other travelling teams. Only last week, Werder Bremen were in the Tirol playing a fellow Bundesliga side and a Turkish team. The presence of clubs of the status of Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and Young Boys Bern in towns in Austria and Switzerland also provides a much-needed economic boost to holiday resorts. It was a practice that former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger favoured in his early years at the club.

In all probability, big clubs would say a tour to Asia represents part of their core business proposition – playing football as entertainment for the people. These tours are also significant revenue generators, with the biggest names in Europe capable of receiving match fees of up to £ 2 million. It certainly seems like nice business if you can get it, but the effect on the planet, not to mention the physical aspects of long-haul flights (no flights over Russia has a big affect on flights to Asia) must surely be questioned, especially as these games are friendly matches with a diplomatic and commercial agenda. It’s worth thinking about.