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More train, less pesticides, more solar panels. The strategy that leads soccer to a sustainable future.
22 Aug 2023   ·   

A whirlwind tour of some of the world’s most sustainable soccer stadiums could start with the one in the Brazilian favela of Morro da Mineira in Rio de Janeiro. It is not a professional stadium, but a humble community field managed by the local residents’ association, but an unusual detail underpins its commitment to the environment: all the energy it consumes is generated by the players themselves. In the words of the father of the project, British engineer Laurence Kemball-Cook, the idea is to “convert the practice of soccer into electricity” by using 200 kinetic plates, located under the turf, which capture the movement of the players and transform it into “light”, a (faint) ray of hope for the planet.

From Brazil, it would be necessary to travel to the United States to visit the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Atlanta, a 71,000-seat giant that is a pioneer in water management, the installation of photovoltaic panels and sustainability in access, guaranteed by a free bike-sharing system. In Asia, the green stadium par excellence is Kaohsiung in Taiwan, which covers 75% of its energy needs and even sells solar energy to third parties. It also offsets its greenhouse gas emissions with the four-hectare public park that surrounds its perimeter.

MORE WOOD

In old Europe, stadiums like the Allianz Riviera in Nice, with its laminated wood structures and its commitment to wind energy, the Dacia Arena in Udine, the Johan Cruyff stadium in Amsterdam or the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, boast (with good reason) a high degree of sustainability. The Dartford FC stadium in the southeast of England is a pioneer in modest soccer, a beautiful venue with solar panels and a rainwater collection system that is partially buried in a hill full of trees. And 200 kilometers from there, in Nailsworth, a village of less than 8,000 inhabitants, the local club, Forest Green Rovers, is working on a future benchmark for green sports architecture.

The Rovers stadium, dubbed Eco Park, will be designed by famed architect Zaha Hadid, and is expected to be the world’s first carbon-positive sports venue in the medium term. Although part of its basic structure will be made of steel and concrete, the façade, roof and stands will be built with sustainable wood. Among the main shareholders of this club that officially declares itself “vegan“, which cares for its lawns without using pesticides and uses recycled plastic and waste coffee grounds in its uniforms, is Real Betis winger (formerly of Barcelona and Arsenal) Héctor Bellerín. For the Barcelona player, “examples such as Forest Green show that there is a lot to be done to improve the quality of life of our players,” he said.

MUCH TO BE DONE

Last January a considerable controversy was generated when it was made public that the Qatar World Cup, far from becoming, as FIFA claimed, “the first major carbon-neutral sporting event”, had ended up being the most polluting World Cup in history. FIFA itself acknowledged total emissions of 3.6 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, attributed mainly to travel to Qatar, the construction of new infrastructure and the accommodation and energy consumption of fans.

In the opinion of Jordi Portabella, director of FC Barcelona’s Sustainability Area, these figures show “that the soccer industry currently has a very significant environmental impact and that we must redouble our efforts to reduce it“. The time of “cosmetic” initiatives and greenwashing, the accommodating environmentalism and the face to the gallery, is behind us, because “the environmental challenges are as demanding as they are unpostponable”. The soccer of the future has to be “much more sustainable, starting with its stadiums”.

We spoke with Portabella at the club’s headquarters, coinciding with the start of remodeling work on the Spotify Camp Nou and the Espai Barça as a whole. For the Barça executive, this project is, also from the point of view of sustainability, the jewel in the crown of the institution he represents.

Back in the spring of 2022, president Joan Laporta assured at the presentation of the renovation that the new stadium would be “the most sustainable in LaLiga and a green benchmark on a global level”. Portabella assures that this commitment is more valid today than ever: “We have made no concessions. None of the revisions that have been made to the original project by the Nikken Sekkei architectural agency have lowered the ecological requirements. On the contrary, they have reinforced it.”

THE DATA OF AN AMBITIOUS AND CUTTING-EDGE PROJECT

Portabella cites as an example “the increase in the planned green spaces, which, beyond their usefulness in offsetting emissions, have a social value, can serve as a climatic refuge and, in the medium term, will make it possible to recover biodiversity in the area surrounding the stadium”. To date, a new green space of 4,000 square meters has been created with an innovative lighting system, 65 trees have been planted and 21 wooden benches and 16 chairs have been installed. Portabella also emphasizes that these actions are complemented by “the construction of bicycle lanes at the entrances to the site, such as the one already installed on Joan XXIII Avenue“, the first stone of a new and very ambitious program of ecological mobility that is being worked on with the Barcelona City Council.

As for energy saving measures, Portabella considers “strategic” the installation of “18,000 square meters of photovoltaic panels, capable of generating electricity equivalent to the consumption of 600 standard-sized homes”. Also making a difference is “a state-of-the-art geothermal energy system that will reduce energy consumption by 30%”. And a plan for the efficient use of water resources that “will collect rainwater and use it to irrigate the surrounding vegetation”.

These “structural and far-reaching” measures are complemented by the active promotion of sustainability in everyday life: “FC Barcelona was one of the first clubs to commit to travel by train whenever circumstances permit. The men’s professional soccer team, for example, already traveled by AVE to Madrid last season. This is part of a transversal plan to reduce the club’s carbon footprint, which affects all areas of the club and which the Sustainability Area, created in 2021, actively promotes and oversees”.

For Portabella, some of the most sustainable large professional stadiums on the planet today are the Johan Cruyff Arena, Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park and the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium: “They are all examples to follow, but our project goes further in some crucial aspects”. In Spain, he recognizes “the pioneering efforts of Athletic Club de Bilbao, which was one of the first LaLiga clubs to carry out an eco-friendly renovation by installing solar panels on its perimeter”. It also considers appropriate “the emissions compensation policy of Real Madrid or the intelligent resource management software used by Atlético de Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano”.

These are positive examples, perhaps still insufficient, “given the magnitude of the environmental challenges”, but they prove that “something substantial is changing in the world of soccer, which is still (and always will be) an ephemeral entertainment and art industry, dependent on whether a ball goes in or not, but it is taking its social responsibility more and more seriously”.

In that sense, Portabella adds that in the educational programs of the Barcelona Innovation Hub there is an increasing demand for sustainability-related content: “My department has already given very specific lectures on topics related to resilience to climate change and the reduction of the carbon footprint. These topics are of interest, there is a social demand for ethical and responsible business actions, in line with the challenges the world is facing”. For every environmental challenge there is, at least potentially, a technological solution. The humble wooden stadiums, the kinetic panels in Morro de Mineira and the 18,000 square meters of solar panels at the Camp Nou of the future are all part of this solution, which is making headway against all odds.

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