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Will there be no football to look forward to if we don’t take sustainability seriously? The Risk of Inaction is too big.

As FBIN Members and guests gathered in Wiltz, answers ranged from relaxed to dramatic. The takeaway? All agree that sustainability plays a pivotal role in the future of the beautiful game and should be approached accordingly. Just remember: “You should just do things authentically.”

By Betty Ruzickova

Landing at Luxembourg airport, to get to Wiltz in the North West, it is either a roughly 45 minute car ride or 2 or so hours by the free public transport that Luxembourg kindly offers. No matter which route you take, you will be met with scenic green fields, hills and forests and a few scattered houses before you make it to the capital of the Wiltz canton of the same name. An apt location for the first FBIN Sustainability Meet Up? It certainly gets you in the right state of mind before you arrive at the home of our hosts, FC Wiltz 71. Their beautiful stadium with a gleaming pitch set against the crazy April weather was a wonderful home to us for the day.

FBIN Sustainability Meetup presented by Ammer Group AG 

FBIN Members, speakers and guests have all gathered at Wiltz’s stadium to share their experience and takes on sustainability in football, With key notes, panel discussions and a break out session ready to challenge what they already know and perhaps to shed light on how things are done by their neighbours and competitors. The day may have started with everyone being individual islands, yet the recurring theme and message kept coming up: We are all in this together, we cannot do it alone.

Despite the monumental differences in the positions, the circumstances and the challenges that each club, league or association is faced with, everyone shared the same determination to find the solution that fits their particular predicament. Georges Engel, Sports Minister of Luxembourg, opened with apt remarks “…no social phenomenon is more popular or bigger than football. Yet there is no bigger goal than to protect the planet.”

Photos by Jordy Fourgon.

Taking a dive into the day to day at leagues and clubs

In Spain, the LaLiga partnered up with a global investment fund in 2021 to set up a strategic agreement in the form of the Boost LaLiga (LaLiga Impulso) programme. Despite the critical voices out there, not just in our audience, but also in Spain among some of the clubs themselves. The nearly €2 billion injection commits participating clubs to allocating up to 70% of the funds to investments linked to growing their club.

As Pablo Armiñana Granell (Market analysis & Strategy in the Chairman’s office, LaLiga) explained, the objectives are set for the clubs in advance, yet it is up to the participating clubs to prepare their own development plans with reasoning for why they should be allocated the money. The programme is open to receive proposals for a very broad range of areas from Infrastructure, Digital, Technology to Communications, Marketing or Branding and beyond. A small percentage can be used for the sports squad and for financial optimisation. The projects are intertwined with the cities and the communities they operate in, just one example would be that clubs are actively encouraged to invest in the stadiums, often owned by local authorities.

Boost LaLiga makes sure to remember which industry it operates in, the participating clubs can see their standing in a new kind of “league table” with projects and results measured against one another. Bringing the competition off the grass pitch and onto a new playing field. Despite each entity focusing on their individual strategic plan, knowledge sharing is strongly encouraged with platforms and time provided for the club representatives to meet and to discuss their off pitch victories, or struggles.

The challenges in Spain soon proved to be similar in some ways to the ones in Slovakia. Especially in relation to finance and getting clubs on board. Michal Mertinyak, the CEO of the Slovak Football League, in the panel on Sustainability and Regulations repeatedly stressed the importance of making the league financially sustainable. In his case one of the key focus areas is to provide meaningful and quality education to the clubs.

Michal reacted to any potential regulations with an optimistic, yet cautious attitude: “I believe in the centralised system that makes things more transparent and you need to grow the smallest members as well. You need to push them forward. However if you centralise a lot you’ll meet resistance from the big ones. You need to focus on your strategic plan and to focus on the projects that you recognise as your crucial ones.” 

Reminding everyone that from where he stands, he can see that his league has become very skilled at being reactive in the last few years (i.e. the pandemic, the energy crisis). Now it is time to focus on the near future. Instead of simply reacting to what is thrown at them. Summing up their current position Michal pointed our that Our main goal is to bring all clubs on board and to work together. Otherwise we cannot do it and we cannot grow.”

For Florin Sari, the Public Policy and Social Responsibility Manager for the Romanian FA, the roadmap is clear and very well mapped out by the UEFA guidelines: The Strength Through Unity Football Sustainability Strategy 2030. His association has taken to collaborations to push forward. Such as working with the Portuguese FA and universities. Slowly getting the local clubs on board, despite some difficulties, creating a platform and the space for cooperation.

Florin’s reasoning is simple We want to become better organisations.” For him ROI stands for “Risk of Inaction” and it is too big to ignore. Wish a smile he adds, A beautiful tool in your hand called football matches” – in what ways can we use them?

Axel Sierau, owner of Sponsoris, with his eye of a consultant and an expert from the academic angle brought the panel to a close with the apparent, “there isnt a one solution fits all”. Albeit he is very proud of where Germany is in terms of sustainability, he does remind us that is very important to remember that although we can learn from the leaders, we must do our own analysis of where we stand. Can we perhaps highlight successful income stories to prove a point?

Matthias Mühlen, the Head of Sustainability/CSR at VfL Bochum, showcased that finding a tailor-made solution worked for them. VfL Bochum traveled the road of the old School, classic CSR and then the road of different approaches to Sustainability. Starting off by doing something good for others, slowly moving towards their three key topics. Carefully selected to match their values and their brand. Introducing sustainable processes, restructuring, an introduction of a CSR department, a partnership with a local university and the recent, perhaps the most challenging step in creating and maintaining a “shift of mindset” in the club as a whole. How does VfL Bochum spur their own way? By defining their traits and cornerstones: 

Tradition – down to earth, authentic, continuity and calm instead of “actionism”.

Motivation – pioneer, multiplier and transformer. More than just doing your duties.

Innovation – own ways instead of the mainstream, impact instead if PR gags.

Participation – involve the entire VfL family. Animation and excitement.

TSG 1899 Hoffenheim took a similar approach to VfL Bochum in looking at the key pillars that define them, or speak to who they are as a club and looked for “common value club alliances” to build partnerships. Stefan Wagner, Corporate Development for TSG 1899 Hoffenheim,  explained that for them it is talent, knowledge, brand & CSR and sustainable models that remain center stage, be it in their development strategy or in looking for partners with the same mindset. They have succeeded so far, with examples being their work with FC Cincinnati, or their work in Africa. Stefan was quite sincere when he pointed out that given their position, “It doesn’t make sense for us to go down the traditional route. If you can’t win on that playing field, change the playing field.”

Before we settled down for dinner ahead of the match, the closing panel rounded off the day with the loaded question of “Whats your strategy? Club perspectives on their sustainability approach” the transcript would be a joy to re-read as it showed the myriad of angles that this can be approached in and once again it brought back the looming reminder of not only how the approaches really need to be tailored to each and every individual, but also how important it is to sit down and share these stories to bring about a greater understanding for our different positions. League, club or country.

Lisa Währer, the Co-Founder and Managing Director at FC Viktoria Berlin Women’s team verbalised the unsaid “It is sad that you need to put the regulations in place to make everyone do something for ourselves.” before coming back to her optimism and ever present drive for improvement of the game. “You should just do things authentically.”

In truth this did sum up the entire day. From all the speakers and one-on-one conversations, it was more than apparent that the present representatives all agreed on the monumental importance of football addressing sustainability and bringing it into their day to day in their own, individual fashion. We mustn’t lose sight of the goal and stray away from the authenticity. This is too big of an issue to do it just for the rule book to be happy.

The findings, or the gentle reminders that we have all been privy to were beautifully underscored by the environment that we were in. On a Champions League night in this small, beautiful town a group of dedicated people have spent the day preparing for the last 16 match of FC Wiltz 71 in the Coupe de Luxembourg. From speaking to the various team members, you got a clear feeling of how important the club is to them. Their warmth, the wonderful hospitality they have extended to us and the eagerness to share a piece of their home and history with us was special. We all want our team to go on, to be a part of our lives. And the 80,000 capacity stadium with millions of followers deserves exactly the same chance to live on as this one, where maybe 250 people braved the rain and the cold to see their team progress into the next stage. 

As Florin said, “The Risk of Inaction is too big”.

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