Many major sports gatherings have been rocked by extreme weather events in recent years. A typhoon forced the postponement of several matches during the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. The air became unbreathable during the 2020 Australian Tennis Open because of bush fires. The Olympic Marathon was relocated further north to escape the oppressive heat in Tokyo. And the situation is similar for the Winter Olympics, whose future is uncertain.
The soccer world won’t be spared.
Beginning on Nov. 20, the best national teams, including Canada’s, will gather in Qatar to compete in the 22th edition of the soccer World Cup. For the first time in its history, the event – which has been the target of social and environmental criticism – will be held at the end of autumn due to the high temperatures that affect the country during the summer, and which could affect the health of spectators and athletes.
Will there still be a soccer World Cup in 2100? What impact is pollution having on player performance? Will we have to choose between our love of soccer and the fight against climate change?
As researchers in physical activity sciences, we are proposing to shed some light on the impacts of climate change on the future of soccer.
Soccer: Victim of, or contributor to climate change?
The combination of historical data and current emission scenarios reveals that rising sea levels, intensified heat waves, increased risk of megafires, floods and deteriorating air quality all pose major threats to both amateur and professional soccer. However, soccer is not just a victim of climate change. It is also a significant contributor to it, as demonstrated by the annual carbon footprint of Premier League (English Football Championship) players, estimated at 29 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent – and that is just for the travel entailed.
This is nearly three times the annual carbon footprint of UK citizens, and far exceeds the global target of two tonnes per person, set to meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement (COP21).
Heat, weather and flooding: What are the impacts on the practice?
In the short term, the concerns are mainly about low air quality and heat, which could affect the health of spectators, sports workers and athletes, as well as their performance. Some sports associations such as Major League Soccer (MLS) or Alberta Soccer in Canada have already established safety thresholds to regulate holding events during hot weather events and pollution peaks.
Since it is estimated that these conditions will become more frequent in the near future (the mercury is expected to exceed 30°C on more than 50 days per year in several Canadian cities, including Montreal and Toronto, by 2050-2080), it is possible to estimate a greater number of postponements and cancellations of practices and games. There is also the potential impact of fires on infrastructure and the deterioration of natural grass fields due to drought and summer watering restrictions. These fields could also be affected by increasingly harsh winter conditions.
A 2013 study in England already reported a loss of three to 13 weeks of use of some natural pitches due to more intense rainfall. In the longer term, rising oceans and more frequent flooding are likely to pose a temporary or permanent threat to clubs’ operations, jeopardizing the future of soccer in some parts of the world if greenhouse gas emissions follow their current trend.
According to a report based on modelling, by 2016 the stadiums of 23 professional teams in England could face partial or total flooding in every season. Such events have already occurred in Montpellier, France (2014) and Carlisle, England (2015), rendering the grounds unusable for several months.
In some contexts, synthetic fields offer an interesting alternative when a natural field is unavailable or too degraded; moreover, they can be used over a longer period of the year. However, data show that these fields are prone to create heat islands, with a surface temperature that can be 12°C to 22°C higher than the temperature of a natural grass. This level of temperature increases the heat stress experienced by athletes and, therefore, augments risks to their health and performance. The same is true for the health of referees, coaches and audience members.
Impacts on player health and performance
Air pollution negatively impacts the quantity and quality of passes, distance travelled and high intensity efforts of professional players. Peak pollution could even drastically reduce the number of goals scored during games.
There is empirical evidence observed for several decades that the chances of winning are higher when playing at home. In a polluted city, this increase is accentuated when the opposing team comes from a less polluted city. Why? Because the host team is used to a higher average air pollution, and therefore its performance is less affected.
Heat and dehydration can also affect the performance of the athletes and, consequently, the quality of the games and the show offered. Yet, analyses of the 2014 World Cup matches in Brazil suggest that the quality of play was not affected by the oppressive heat. However, these results should be interpreted cautiously, as elite athletes generally tolerate heat and dehydration better than untrained individuals.
So, it is possible that amateur athletes, or older players with specific health conditions will experience more adverse health and effects on their performance.
Urgent need for change: From reactive to proactive
With its scale and ability to reach a wide audience, soccer can play a major role in the current ecological transition, including through climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was one of the first international sports federations to commit to the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework, by developing its own climate strategy. Concretely, FIFA has established several initiatives that revolve around three main objectives: 1) making soccer ready for climate action; 2) protecting iconic tournaments from the negative impacts of climate change; and 3) ensuring the development of resilient soccer.
In the wake of this, in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change on its operations, the soccer world will very quickly have to move from a reactive to a proactive approach, by putting actions in place:
Encouraging public or shared transportation for fans and amateur athletes;
Reducing the vulnerability of players and spectators by adapting regulations and activities: More frequent training breaks, possibility of making more changes during games, revision of the rules concerning the duration of games in case of a tie, moving games to cooler times of the day.
Since soccer is not the only sport that is both a victim of, and an actor in climate change, urgent action by the sporting community as a whole is needed to continue to play safely and enjoyably.