In football, politics is usually kept off the field. People come to the stadium because they want to have a good time and be distracted from the struggles and quarrels of everyday life.

But the match between Schalke 04 and Mainz 05 on 20 September 2019 was an exception. It was not any Friday, but the third international Friday for Future, which saw global protests for climate protection.

Before the match, two children stepped onto the field, wearing the jerseys of the two teams.

They read out a joint statement, in which the clubs expressed solidarity with Fridays for Future, stating that “it is our fault that the Earth is in such a bad state” and demanding that humans “change the way we live” and find solutions to environmental problems. Fans applauded and cheered.

Getting through to fans

This was a great example of why football can play a special role in climate protection, Sebastian Buntkirchen, head of CSR (corporate social responsibility) at Schalke 04, told EURACTIV.

Nowadays, many companies not only adopt more sustainable production schemes but also try to raise awareness of environmental challenges.

But in this game, football clubs have a specific advantage, says Buntkirchen: “We can speak to people on an emotional level, and reach them better than other businesses.” He sees this as football’s unique contribution to climate protection.

This potential to influence people brings a certain responsibility, which Schalke 04 fully embraces. The joint statement with Mainz 05, where they took the emotional pre-match tension in the stadium and channelled it into a message about climate change, is one example.

However, Buntkirchen acknowledges that Schalke 04’s fans might have other priorities than climate change, for one simple reason: Geography.

Schalke’s hometown Gelsenkirchen lies in the heart of the Ruhrgebiet, formerly Germany’s main region for coal and steel mining.

For the people living here, other issues are more pressing, such as migration – an area where Schalke 04 is active as well, heading several integration projects. All the more crucial is it for Schalke to raise awareness about the climate crisis.

No greenwashing for Gazprom

To act as a role model, the club tries to walk the talk. Their stadium, the Veltins Arena, is a physical manifestation of that effort. The arena’s catering received the German certificate for sustainable corporate governance, beer cups are recycled and made into new cups for the next match.

The share of cups that are being returned in order to enter the recycling process per match is under 50% but Buntkirchen is determined to increase this to 90% in the future.

But these measures also came with a price tag. Apart from the investments into infrastructure, the club also had to hire new staff with sustainability expertise. And of this money, “every euro is missing in the actual sport”, says Buntkirchen.

Luckily, Schalke 04’s sponsors are on board with the club’s green course – even their main sponsor, Gazprom, Russia’s biggest producer of gas and the world’s third-biggest emitter of CO2 according to the Climate Accountability Institute.

Asked whether this could be seen as greenwashing, Buntkirchen clarifies: “We do not share that assessment at all.”

Competition and cooperation

In the future, Buntkirchen says, football clubs will take on more and more social responsibility because they have this unique way of influencing people and can become role models.

He sees this especially in the working group “Responsibility”, where Schalke cooperates with five other German clubs on CSR by sharing best practices or organising joint projects, such as the joint declaration with Mainz 05.

Because even if the clubs compete fiercely on the field, they work together to realise their responsibilities, says Buntkirchen.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]