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Kick environmentalism out of football

After Saturday's FA Cup Final: green hectoring about litter and CO2 has no place in a Beautiful Game that is all about irrational passion.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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What did you do on Saturday, the sunny day of the FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Chelsea which took place at the rather spectacularly done-up Wembley Stadium? Maybe you were one of 89,826 fans jammy enough to get tickets for the game and to watch it underneath Wembley’s new gleaming, cathedral-style arc. Or perhaps you were one of the estimated 500million people who watched it on TV (United and Chelsea’s fanbases stretch way beyond the white cliffs of Dover into Europe, Africa and Asia). Maybe, like thousands of others, you watched the game over a pint in a local pub. Or perhaps you don’t very much care for football and did something completely unrelated instead: shopping, sleeping, sunbathing.

Or…were you one of a small handful of miserabilist windbags who spent the day pointing out how destructive the FA Cup Final is likely to be for the environment? We should have seen it coming. A few hours before the Cup Final kicked off, it was reported that the event would make an ‘eco-footprint’ 3,000 times the size of the Wembley pitch. Academics totted up the number of pies and other unsavoury savoury products the Wembley-attending fans were likely to consume (the fat bastards) and the number of miles they were likely to drive, and worked out that each fan’s ‘eco-footprint’ would be nearly 10 times what it would have been if he or she had watched the game from home.

What curmudgeonliness. The anti-FA Cup miserabilism provided a striking (if somewhat unwitting) snapshot of the inherently elitist streak in the politics of environmentalism. Where millions of people around the world were glued to watching a major annual event in that most mass of mass sports, football, certain green-minded individuals seized an opportunity to lecture and hector the nation about its dirty habits. It was the political equivalent of a dirty tackle from behind. It’s high time we showed these greens the red card.

Claims that the first FA Cup Final to be played at Wembley in seven years would make a damaging dent in the natural environment emanated from academics at Cardiff University. I know – you would think that a university has better things to do than put the dampers on a big sporting event. And Cardiff? Maybe they’re bitter that Wembley has re-assumed its rightful place as Britain’s big national stadium, thus kicking Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium into touch. According to the Guardian, Cardiff University found that ‘the average fan’s taste for beer and pies makes up a large chunk of the ecological impact [of the FA Cup Final in Wembley]’. Cardiff’s Andrea Collins said, ‘They are highly processed food and drink products which require a lot of energy to produce’ (1). She also said that a lot of waste would be ‘generated outside [Wembley] stadium’, especially by fans driving their cars or using up some other breed of ‘transport miles’ (2).

Cardiff’s claims were based on a study it carried out of the FA Cup Final of 2004 when Manchester United played Millwall at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium. Back then researchers found that before, during and after the game Man Utd and Millwall fans ate 37,624 sausage rolls, pies or pasties, 26,965 sandwiches, 17,998 hot dogs, 12,780 burgers, 11,502 packets of crisps and 23,909 portions of chips. They rinsed it all down with 303,001 pints of lager, 66,584 pints of beer, 38,906 pints of cider, 12,452 bottles of wine, 90,481 shots and 63,141 bottles of alcopops. This ‘binge’ left a mark on Cardiff city centre: 37 tonnes of glass, eight tonnes of paper and 11 tonnes of uneaten food were left behind, and none of it was recycled! Can you believe it? Football fans watched a game and then went out to celebrate/commiserate over grub and booze and they didn’t even take their rubbish home with them to deposit it in their recycling compost machines (3).

During the 2004 Cup Final, fans’ use of transport contributed the largest part of the ‘eco-footprint’. The researchers found that fans travelled an average of 367 miles each (well, if you are going to hold an English Cup Final in Wales…), 47 per cent of them by car, 34 per cent by rail and the rest in coaches or minibuses. Apparently, all this travelling made an ‘eco-footprint’ that measured 1,670 ‘global hectares’ – though quite how you get from miles travelled by football fans to a footprint measured in hectares is anyone’s guess (4). Extrapolating from these 2004 findings, the Cardiff boffins now say that Saturday’s final at Wembley will have caused an ‘eco-footprint’ 3,000 times the size of the Wembley pitch. Got that? A study of what fans ate and drank during an FA Cup Final in 2004 can throw light on the amount of land (the eco-footprint) required to provide the necessary resources to replenish those used up by fans at an FA Cup Final in 2007. And they say that those who question the green ethos use dodgy science….

Having colonised the educational sphere and the political sphere, the rapacious green ethos is now spreading into the world of leisure. Even that previously purely emotional sphere of football fandom is being subordinated to the demands of the green priests. Last year’s World Cup was similarly measured in terms of its ecological impact. The German authorities claimed that the event would emit 100,000 tonnes of CO2, which they tried to offset by investing $1.5billion in environmental protection projects in Africa and Asia. They also ‘educated’ fans attending World Cup games by issuing them with green advice leaflets, making them drink from recyclable and refillable beer cups, and serving hotdogs without any packaging (5). In Britain, the Football Association has set itself the task of making football ‘carbon-neutral’ (6).

Behind the claims that big cup finals are destroying the environment there lurks an old-fashioned fear and loathing of football fans, of their cavalier attitudes and their potentially destructive and violent impact. Old concerns about large gatherings of working-class men (and some women) are now swaddled in PC environmentalist lingo. Where thousands of fans were traditionally seen as a heaving riot waiting to happen (and sometimes still are), now many see them as toxic waste-creators; where fans used to be looked upon as a threat to public order, now they are described as a threat to the natural order. You can see the fear of the masses in those scary-sounding numbers of how many pints they drink and portions of chips they eat: they are not seen as individuals coming together to cheer their team, but as an out-of-control mass, an intolerable blob, eating tonnes of food, drinking tonnes of booze and leaving behind tonnes of shit.

The anti-fan component to the greening of football is clear in the solution put forward: to change mass behaviour. David James, until recently the England team goalkeeper and a leading light in the football world’s efforts to make the game more planet-friendly, says the real problem is ‘habit and tradition’: ‘Football is pure bloke territory: it’s still acceptable to spit out gum and chuck bottles on the floor, and the industry mirrors this selfishness across the scale.’ James says the football authorities must re-educate people and reshape their ‘attitudes’ – that is, effectively de-bloke them. ‘We’ve got to make use of football as a driving force for environmental change. We’d be stupid not to. It doesn’t take a think tank to see that the game holds a powerful influence over kids and adults around the world.’ (7) In short, the authorities should exploit football to change the way fans think and behave. Even the old fan-hating law’n’order lobby never tried that – they might have whacked fans across the head, but they didn’t try to change what was inside their heads.

It takes a killjoy of the highest order to hector football fans for not thinking about the consequences of their behaviour while they’re watching a game. Like Catholic priests of old, the greens demand that we stop and think before doing anything potentially ‘destructive’ or ‘immoral’. They seem not to understand that there are moments in life when we simply lose ourselves in passion or fury and throw ‘good sense’ and ‘good behaviour’ to the wind. No self-respecting football fan is going to think about recycling a hotdog napkin when his team is 1-0 down and there are only five minutes left; no fan whose team has just won the FA Cup is going to collect together all his beer bottles as he drinks himself silly and put them in a bottle bank on the way home. Life, love, football: they just don’t work like that. And if you can’t see why, then maybe you’d be better off watching bowls.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill condemned the trend to police the language of football-ground chants. Matthias Heitmann gave politicians’ and moralisers’ use of football the red card. Mick Hume doubted that a head-butt was a gesture of cosmic discontent. Bruno Waterfield exposed the myth of the World Cup ‘sex slaves’. Duleep Allirajah considered the meaning of football. Or read more at: spiked issue Sport.

(1) Who ate all the pies? Cup final fans, Guardian, 18 May 2007

(2) Who ate all the pies? Cup final fans, Guardian, 18 May 2007

(3) Who ate all the pies? Cup final fans, Guardian, 18 May 2007

(4) Who ate all the pies? Cup final fans, Guardian, 18 May 2007

(5) World Cup 2006 Green Goal Scores, Treehugger, 6 March 2006

(6) David James on green living, Observer, 3 December 2006

(7) David James on green living, Observer, 3 December 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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