Football has demonstrated its power for social good throughout the pandemic, particularly by supporting local communities in their hour of need. By adding a new Responsibility pillar to its five-year strategy, UEFA has paved the way for football to fully leverage its influence to address key global issues.
In a wide-ranging interview, Michele Uva, UEFA’s director of football social responsibility, sets out the organisation’s plans for European football to make both a direct and an indirect difference on human rights and environmental sustainability.
Why has UEFA made football social responsibility part of its long-term strategy?
“When your sport is played and followed by millions of people, your actions have an enormous impact on society, especially the young. That brings a responsibility that football cannot ignore and is why UEFA has integrated social responsibility into every aspect of its five-year strategy for European football.
“UEFA believes that football can play a lead role in promoting behavioural change on two key global issues: the environment and human rights. There are several specific areas where we can contribute. For example, the pandemic showed how football can help individuals cope with mental health issues.
“This year, we will invest €12 million in social responsibility activities. For us, it is an investment in the future, not only for football but also society.”
UEFA is made up of 55 national football associations, based in 55 countries. How will you ensure European football has a united voice on social issues?
“We recognise that each football association must address a different set of social priorities. As a governing body, it is our task to provide a policy framework that unifies European football’s sustainability programmes, ensuring they all speak the same language.
“UEFA’s own programmes will be based on 11 policies, each setting ten-year targets, indicators and actions for different aspects of environmental sustainability and human rights.
“By measuring progress against a common set of goals, we want to inspire the wider football community – our stakeholders, domestic leagues, commercial and broadcast sponsors and, above all, the national associations. Our first goal is to ensure all 55 associations employ a dedicated football social responsibility manger. We expect to achieve that by the end of next season. This will provide a single point of reference at each national association with whom we can share our strategy and expertise. It will also create a community of best practice that grows together.”
How can UEFA make a difference on topics where multinational organisations and governments often struggle to succeed?
“We must be realistic and find a balance between topics where football can make a direct impact and those where our influence is more indirect. For example, by ensuring people with disabilities can play football, our sport is making a measurable difference to individual’s lives.
“There are other issues that UEFA cannot directly solve, but we still have the power to raise awareness about the scale of the problem. Remember that around 90 million people play football in Europe, making our community one of the biggest networks in the world.
“During the Under-21 EURO finals in Hungary and Slovenia, our Cleaner Air, Better Games campaign helped inform both football fans and stakeholders about the real and present danger of air pollution. How many people are actually aware that poor air quality contributes to one in eight deaths in Europe each year? The campaign also advocated ten simple changes that we can all take in our daily lives to reduce the impact of air pollution.”
What has UEFA learnt from the Cleaner Air, Better Game campaign?
“We are still learning how football can use its influence to support climate action, as well as adapt to reduce its own environmental impact. After all, UEFA only signed up to the European Union’s Green Deal last December. Cleaner Air, Better Games represents our first step on this journey.
“On 7 June, the day after the Under-21 EURO final, we will stage an online climate and environment workshop in Ljubljana to share the campaign’s lessons with the wider football, political and scientific community. It will be a moment to recap and review. European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans will take part, together with Lučka Kajfež Bogataj, Slovenia’s Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist, former professional footballer and environmental activist Mathieu Flamini, Lindita Xhaferi Salihu, the Sport for Climate Action lead at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), climate and environmental experts, and of course, UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin.”
How closely will UEFA work with multinational organisations like the EU and the United Nations to achieve its social responsibility goals?
“Whatever action UEFA takes, we will achieve nothing by working alone. Issues like climate change and air pollution pose global questions, whose answers will never lie with any one institution.
“Moving forward, it will be important to connect with people who work on these issues on a regular basis: global institutions, football stakeholders, partners and scientific experts. Collaboration will help us find the right path to follow and measures to take. In addition to our partnerships with the United Nations and the EU on climate action, we recently signed a cooperation protocol with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to support refugee access to sport and enhance social inclusion.”
Are you still confident that EURO 2020 will be a carbon-neutral event?
“EURO 2020 will be one of the most environmentally friendly finals ever. To some extent, the pandemic has helped us achieve this goal by limiting the number of fans travelling to matches, but other actions will also improve the event’s climate and environmental legacy.
“Most host cities will encourage ticket holders, volunteers, media and UEFA staff to reduce air pollution by offering free public transport and smart mobility – not only on match days, but throughout the tournament. They will also encourage fans to walk to the stadium. All stadiums will recycle and reuse waste. If national associations can implement these measures for future football events, then EURO 2020 will have left a strong environmental and sustainability legacy.”
What else is UEFA planning to ensure football becomes more accountable for its climate and environmental impact?
“For EURO 2020, we are compensating for carbon emissions, but the long-term goal is to significantly reduce the level of emissions related to our events. By EURO 2024 in Germany, we expect to have a full package of best-practice actions for more sustainable football events.
“As a first step, we are currently assessing ways to measure and limit football’s impact on both the climate and the environment. For example, what is the percentage of renewable energy used in football stadiums? What proportion of materials purchased for our events is sourced locally? Are we assessing air quality? By setting our own concrete targets, we can challenge other football events to become more accountable.”
How quickly do you expect UEFA and European football to deliver real results?
“UEFA cannot go from 100 to zero overnight. Making football more accountable for its climate and environmental impact will take time, not least to build up our technical expertise in a new field. However, there can be no turning back – climate change’s impact on our game is not going away, and it will take all the energy and ingenuity that has characterised our organisation’s response to a year of unprecedented challenges to adapt and find solutions. UEFA is here for the long road, driven by the conviction that we can, indeed must, make a difference.”
Building blocks of UEFA’s fifth pillar
UEFA’s strategy steering committee – composed of presidents and general secretaries representing seven member associations – has worked on the new Responsibility pillar since the start of January. It will complement the four other pillars that underpin UEFA’s 2019–14 strategy: Football, Trust, Competitiveness and Prosperity.
The fifth pillar, approved by the Executive Committee on 19 April in Montreux, aims to strengthen football’s role in upholding human rights and building a sustainable environment. It is based on 11 specific policies. For each, UEFA is creating a set of goals, actions and indicators.
2. Child and youth safeguarding
3. Solidarity and rights
4. Football for all
5. Health and well-being
6. Equality and inclusion
7. Refugee support
8. Environmental protection
9. Event sustainability
10. Circular economy
11. Infrastructure sustainability