Around Christmas, the Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp criticised the “crazy” demands made on top players who, given the proliferation of fixtures, can find themselves with only two weeks off a year from a job that is physically and mentally gruelling. He called for football administrators to “think about the players, and not about their wallet.” He’s right about this, of course, but there is a more pressing reason why the football authorities need to think more broadly about load management and curtail their expansionist tendencies: our planet can’t sustain it either. 

As is the case for many of us, those involved in the running of the football business are apparently in an ominous state of denial about the climate emergency. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made it clear that we need rapidly to transition to a decarbonised world, hitting global greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets of 45% by 2030 and complete carbon neutrality by 2050. But not all carbon footprints are created equal in our comprehensively unequal world and since some are easier to reduce than others this will require those in disproportionately polluting nations to reduce our carbon footprints by 90% within a decade. Doing so will demand a radical and historically unprecedented transformation of every feature of contemporary society, including how we consume, travel, work, play, stay warm or cool… Almost nothing about our collective future as a species, if we are to have one, will remain untouched by this transformation. That includes football.

Like most deeply entrenched spheres of our culture, football has its head deeply in the sand regarding what this transition will really mean. Despite a good deal of greenwashing rhetoric and minimal effort, the business of football has continued to act as though this is a crisis that will leave the field of play more or less unaltered. This is not just a leadership problem, another crisis that can be conveniently placed at the gilded doors of governance bodies, although it certainly is that too. Academic research and journalistic discourse on football’s carbon footprint is virtually non-existent, but even from a distance you can see the (melting) iceberg fast approaching. Each of us who play, watch, care, think and write about football have avoided difficult questions about its short- and long-term viability in a near zero emissions world. We don’t want to think about it, but we have to, and now.

Like most capitalist enterprises, the football business is a growth industry and you’re only winning if you’re getting bigger. The target is always more goals, more points, more fans, more social media likes, more revenue, more shirt sales, more corporate partners, more market share, just more. But as it turns out, and this is an undeniably unfortunate revelation, very few industries in the 21st century can sustain limitless growth, and football needs to reshape itself accordingly. 

At a quickening pace over the past few decades, football has lurched toward the epicentre of a whole range of activities that already seem unviable on 10% of our current carbon budget. Can millions of people around the world still get in cars once a week to drive to see a match played in a massive concrete husk on the outskirts of a city? Should we continue to revere the much-vaunted travelling away fan who heroically ventures every other week to different faraway towns, or countries, or continents, faithfully to support their team? How many people’s carbon budget will allow them to get on a plane to go to an international match? Or to buy any of the industrially processed meat sandwiches or oil-soaked plastic paraphernalia or fast fan fashion on sale in and around the grounds? Does the practice of releasing two or three new strips and countless heaps of tat every season survive the brutally hard global push to a zero emissions world? Is there a place in the Anthropocene for the polyester half and half scarf? What of the increasing ownership of the greatest resources of the football world — its most storied clubs and brilliant players — by energy companies and petro-states? How many of football’s biggest sponsors — think Kia/Hyundai, Qatar Airways, Continental, Castrol, Gazprom, McDonald’s, Emirates, Coca Cola — have the kind of business model that could have any significant place in a carbon neutral world, and what will we do when they’re gone?

Any clear-eyed appraisal of the compatibility of the current business model of football with the world we are trying to preserve shows it to be hopelessly anachronistic and futureless. We aren’t willing to acknowledge this yet, or to even talk about it, apparently. In a saner world, genuine discussion of these questions would be headlining global sports sections daily. Emergency conferences would be convened by every national FA, regional confederation, and Fifa. Those of us who love football but also prefer an inhabitable earth would be working to figure out what can and should be salvaged from the sinking ship of football as we know it, and those who are personally or professionally invested in the game would be wrestling with how to lead us thoughtfully into our collectively less carefree future. But of course, none of this is happening.

The unsustainability of modern football is a worryingly broad problem, but let’s focus on only one of the many issues that the game should be wrestling with in an era of catastrophic climate breakdown, since it is the most necessary, obvious, yet difficult change we need to make. Simply put, there needs to be a lot less of it. If we accept that affluent, fossil fuel gorging nations must almost completely decarbonise our economies and, therefore, all of our lives, in a little over a decade, this means that we must each make difficult choices about what we can do with the limited carbon budget we each have left. George Monbiot has estimated this to be 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually for a British citizen, and this ration must include all activities that contribute to an increased carbon footprint.

Meanwhile, and in the context of urgent widespread global debate about the climate emergency, what is on the global football industry’s mind? Growth, naturally. Fifa has recently expanded the men’s World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, the women’s World Cup from 24 to 32 and the Club World Cup from 7 to 24 teams. The regional confederations have been similarly expansionist. Having recently increased the size of the European Championship and created a new tournament in the form of the Nations League, Uefa are now looking to increase the number of teams participating in its existing club competitions and recently announced the creation of an entirely new third-tier annual tournament involving 32 teams. This year also sees the growth of the Concacaf Gold Cup from 12 to 16 teams and both the Africa Cup of Nations and the AFC Asian Cup from 16 to 24 teams.

All of this will undoubtedly increase football’s already vast carbon footprint. One of the activities likely to become impossible for any fan inclined or compelled to stay within their carbon budget is long distance air travel. Setting aside all the other carbon consequences of supporting football, a return trip from New York to London produces roughly 1.2 tonnes of CO2 per passenger – one fan’s entire annual budget gone in one shot. The idea of jetting off on a cheap flight for a few days to watch the club or national team you support play overseas will have to be a thing of the past for all but a very few. The ballooning plans for football’s future are predicated upon millions more fans travelling on greenhouse gas-spewing planes into perpetuity, in a geophysical context that makes such glamorous behaviour not only uncomfortably flygskam-inspiring but objectively untenable. Football’s governing bodies should be preparing for the future we have created for ourselves, not the utopian, blinkered continuation of an unsustainable way of life.

Such inconvenient deliberations are altogether excluded from football’s expansionist decision-making processes. Earlier in 2020, when Fifa briefly considered fast-tracking the expansion of the men’s World Cup from 2026 to 2022, its report on the matter focused squarely on the many logistical problems associated with Qatar’s inability to accommodate these extra games and people and, naturally, the financial windfall that awaited if these obstacles could be surmounted. Nowhere in the report are the total GHG emissions of such a move factored into the equation since, despite their greenwashing rhetoric, Fifa doesn’t include the emissions from fans flying to and from tournaments in their carbon estimates, which is comparable to a dieter carefully counting their daily calories but choosing to exclude the bucket of KFC they eat every night before bed. Not mentioned in the report: “Environment”, “Climate change”, “Climate emergency,” “Greenhouse gases”, “Carbon footprint”.

Again, what is wilfully left out of these deliberations about the further bloating of international football is the underlying but undeniable fact that we obviously need much less, not more of it. The governing bodies of the game’s various mission statements all focus on their obligation to promote and develop the sport and, in the hyper-capitalist ecosystem in which they operate, this is synonymous with a kind of growth which is no longer possible. The limits we are approaching will feel brutally hard and, assuming we have taken the kinds of steps required to address the climate crisis, by 2026 millions of fans will not be able to fly to North America from around the world, nor will they be able to travel several thousands of kilometres between host cities in northern Canada and southern Mexico — it will by then be a too-great violation of one’s annual carbon footprint ration. This is true, regardless of how we feel about it. 

The football world is just one facet of broader avoidant tendencies that are threaded like ideological tendrils throughout the world that loves to play and watch the game. None of us want this feast of consumerist expansion to come to an end, but we also don’t want the blood of the planet on our hands. We don’t want to be the generation whose historical legacy is that we knew we were destroying our planet forever and chose to do nothing, because it made our lives a little more boring or difficult. 

Whatever Bill Shankly might have had to say on the subject, football isn’t actually more important than life or death. Soon, we’re going to have to decide how important it really is. The heartening news is that if we make a belated but fiercely concerted and committed effort to prepare, more options will be available to us and we will have the chance to actively participate in the invention of football’s future. The scheduling mayhem caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with a previously unimaginable opportunity to fundamentally reimagine the congested football calendar. If we use this unprecedented chance to immediately start to plan, show foresight and think realistically about the role football might play in our collective futures, then perhaps we can still have the World and World Cups. 

A few easy but necessary first steps would be to say no to all expansion, embrace a less-is-more philosophy and begin an earnest conversation about how much football we want, need and can afford. Spreading every annual league season and cup competition over a two-year period would be a productive starting point. A World Cup with 16 teams instead of 48 sounds about right. One or two games a day instead of four, five, or six? That’s plenty. We can all live with that.