After hanging up his boots on a football career that brought accolades at club and international level, France’s Mathieu Flamini has dedicated his life to an altogether bigger goal – saving the planet.
Even as a midfielder for France, Arsenal and AC Milan, Flamini was a prominent voice on the climate and the environment, setting up biotech company GF Biochemicals to produce sustainable products with minimal impact on air pollution. More recently, he helped to establish Europe’s first Masters’ degree in bioeconomy in Italy and is also part of France’s efforts to ensure the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris sets new standards for sustainability
This week, Flamini has lent his support to UEFA’s Cleaner Air, Better Game campaign, which has used the visibility of UEFA’S European Under-21 Championship finals in Hungary and Slovenia – both its group and knockout stages – to highlight the threat of air pollution.
On 7 June, Flamini will take part in Cleaner Air, Better Game’s keynote event – a virtual climate and environment workshop assessing football’s role in highlighting climate emergency and promoting sustainability. He will be joined by UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin, European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Lučka Kajfež Bogataj, and other climate and environmental experts .
In this Q&A, Flamini discusses his support for Cleaner Air, Better Game, his environmental activism and his hope that football and its biggest stars can make a positive difference to key global issues.
Mathieu, what made you want to become involved in environmental issues?
“I grew up by the sea, in between Corsica and Marseille and, from a very early age, I’ve been very much aware of the impact of humankind on the environment and, also understanding that small changes put together will have a huge impact, I decided to basically spend some of my time and be part of the solution and to be part of the movement that brings the solution to such an important cause.
When did you realise that the planet faces a climate emergency?
“I think the last few years have been a very difficult time, because we’re getting to an emergency and we have to react today.
“In 2018, I joined the community of Young Global Leaders and had the opportunity to go to Greenland with the World Economic Forum with 25 people and a team of scientists. I had the opportunity to see with my own eyes the ice melting in Greenland and, obviously, when you see that with your own eyes, it makes you realise that you have to change, you have to have a positive impact – and not tomorrow, you have to have it today.
“If we continue like that, millions of people will be displaced because of something people maybe don’t realise. The sea-level rising by one to one-and-a-half metres could displace around 300 million people globally. It is very important to realise that we don’t have time anymore.”
What area of sustainability interests you the most?
“I like to point at solutions, not just problems. One of the main interests I have around sustainability is trying to tackle the products that we are using every single day. They are made of harmful chemicals, products and ingredients which are harmful for people on the planet. What I’m trying to do is identify these products and substitute them for safer products that have less impact on the environment. These could be personal care products, home care products, cleaning products that we use every single day.
“The second aspect, which is also very important for me, is our lifestyle. We practice lifestyles which are not sustainable. The way we consume, the way we eat. In 2050, all those things will lead to no more fish in the sea. The way we eat, in terms of eating more and more animal protein, is becoming a real problem, because we are cutting down the Amazon forest in order to feed the animals. So, I think these two aspects are very important and that’s where you can make important changes.
“I really hope that the people out there realise that we don’t have to change tomorrow, we have to change today. That is a global effort and, at the end of the day, small changes, made every single day, can be put together and have a major impact.
What role do you think football can play in raising awareness about the planet’s health?
“I think football has a very important role to play. Football is the most followed sport on a global scale. Football has the power to unite people. Football is about emotion, it’s about love and I think football has the power to create global awareness and to help people change their behaviours.
“Football is based on respect and the question is, ‘Why not use that respect off-the-pitch and apply it to the environment?’ I think that will also be important.
“And, finally, football is followed a lot by the younger generations. I think it has the power to inspire the next generation to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.”
UEFA recently launched the Cleaner Air, Better Game campaign – raising awareness to the threat of air pollution. Why are you supporting the campaign?
“UEFA is one the biggest institutions in football, and I’m very proud that they are joining the global effort to tackle climate change – that’s the first aspect. The second one is UEFA is followed by millions of people out there, so they have to take the lead on sustainability. They have a role to fulfil in terms of social responsibility.”
What message do you have to other players who are influencers and have millions of followers, and what more can they do?
“Football players have become superheroes, and they have a social responsibility towards the millions of people following them. I think that, more than just playing football, they can create a legacy, an athlete’s legacy, which is basically creating change through a platform.
“My message to all football players out there: don’t be scared of speaking anymore, don’t be scared of using your voice, don’t be scared of standing up for your beliefs and what you want to change. I think the next generational athlete will be the one who empowers people to stand up for their beliefs.
“What made me happy over the past few years is to see the next generation challenging all of us to do better. That for me has been a real inspiration, all these kids demanding a better future.”
UEFA has also joined the European Climate Pact. It is also a member of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). What is the potential impact of organisations like UEFA being more involved in topics related to sustainability?
“Football is a sport that is played outdoors. I think is important is to remind people that, in some countries, you can’t even exercise outdoors anymore. because of the impact of pollution. You can’t even see the sun. Obviously, we have to protect the sport we love so much. We also have to make sure that, one day, playing football outdoors does not become a luxury.
“So, if you ask me if I would like to be involved with UEFA, of course! I love to join forces with UEFA and to drive change together. Also, something I like to mention is the incredible work that UEFA is doing with grassroots football. Inspiring millions of kids, so they can add a new page to this educational programme, which is about sustainability, a sustainable lifestyle and also respect for the environment. I think they have a huge opportunity to shape a brighter future for millions of kids.”
Which of your off-the pitch achievements are you most proud?
“One of the things I am most proud of is starting to have a role in sustainability a long time ago. I started with the co-founding of a biochemical company called GF Biochemicals, tackling, addressing and replacing the most harmful ingredients in the formulation of simple products that you can use everyday – for example, shampoo, shower gel or other cleaning products.
“The second is that we also co-founded the first Masters’ degree in bioeconomy in Europe – in Italy, in collaboration with four different universities. That was also an important step, because education is very important and can also inspire people.
“The third is being part of the environmental Olympic community for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Helping to design the most sustainable Olympic Games ever was an incredible experience.”