Football4Climate, a new initiative from Sport and Sustainability International (SandSI), exists to leverage the power of football to drive climate action among the football industry and, most importantly, its fans.
Last month SandSI hosted a panel, moderated by writer David Goldblatt, that featured three European footballers who are engaged on the climate issue.
GreenSportsBlog interviewed all three to find out how and why they got into climate and environmental advocacy, how they balance climate and football, and more.
Sofie Junge Pedersen, a member of the Danish national team who plays her club football with Juventus of Serie A, started off our series.
In today’s Part II, we talk with Arianna Criscione, an American who has a unique perspective on the greening of sports: She is both a goalkeeper for Paris St. Germain (PSG) and works in the club’s marketing department.
GreenSportsBlog: Arianna, I have talked to a lot of athletes in the seven years I’ve been writing GreenSportsBlog but never one who also works on a team’s business side. We will get into how Green-Sports figures into the mix in a bit but first, talk about how you got started into soccer.
Arianna Criscione: I grew up playing soccer in Southern California, mainly because my older sister played. I played goalkeeper because of her, too.
And I had no fear at all; I mean, I would run out and slide tackle kids on break aways…
GSB: …Sounds like a red card or two.
Arianna: Oh yeah! I got red carded plenty. But I had talent and was taller for my age group. So, I was always playing with older kids. At 11, I was picked for the under 14 Olympic Development Program and continued to get better.
I went to UCLA as part of the nation’s top recruiting class and started as a freshman. Thing is, while I wanted to start, it might have been better had I had a transition period. If that had been the case, I might have been better able to deal with a very difficult moment.
GSB: What was that?
Arianna: I made a mistake in the 2003 Final Four versus the University of North Carolina that became one of the most watched ESPN bloopers of that time.
GSB: Oh no…What happened?
Arianna: One of my defenders passed me the ball and I just whiffed on the kick and it slowly rolled into the net.
It was an awful moment. Everybody I knew saw it. And then in the spring season of my freshman year, the coach held it against me. Come the fall, I didn’t start. The coach could never get over it.
So, then I had a choice to make: Stay at UCLA and give up soccer or transfer.
The decision-making process was excruciating.
I loved it at UCLA and did well academically. But I knew the coach would never give me a chance. And in the end, I decided that I still wanted to play. So, I thought I should go as far away as possible, to do something completely different.
Problem is, it’s not easy to transfer as a goalkeeper. Does the coach like your style? Is there a need at the position? It came down to Wake Forest in North Carolina and Boston College. And I chose BC.
One reason? The vibe in the area where Wake is, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was sort of segregated. Plus, BC had just joined the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) which was very exciting to be a part of. It didn’t hurt that North Carolina is in the ACC and I could potentially make up for my error.
GSB: Interesting about Winston-Salem. BC and the Boston area have their own racial issues.
Arianna: Oh, it was very blue blood there, Lew, and very closed. And then I went in and took the starting job from a senior, which was very tough because the team rallied around her.
But I played really well my junior year. I had clean sheets¹ in nine of my 14 games and was named BC’s Female Athlete of the Year.
GSB: How did you make out against North Carolina, the perennial national champions?
Arianna: We lost but I played great, so it was a bit of redemption.
Then my senior year, I suffered a concussion and was out a few weeks. A junior replaced me, and I couldn’t get my job back. But overall, I persevered and played my best and graduated in 2007 with a degree in Communications.
GSB: If memory serves, women’s professional soccer in the U.S. was not in great shape.
Arianna: You’re right. So, I tried to get an Italian passport so I could easily play in the E.U. It was complicated but I ended up getting it after two years.
GSB: Two years? What did you do in the meantime?
Arianna: I went to Sweden where I didn’t need the E.U. passport. Played in the second division. It was fun — we played in the summer, so it was light out almost all the time, the team was tight knit.
Then I went to Italy to try to find a team. Finally, I found a team in Sardinia, Torres Sassari, in the first division. It was so beautiful there — I had island fever. But I was an outsider and never felt comfortable in the locker room.
Still, I just did my job and did it well. We won three titles in the five years I played there.
Eventually, the club found itself in financial difficulties, so I moved on to the Netherlands and FC Twente.
GSB: That sounds like a big switch in terms of culture. How did that work out?
Arianna: It was a good group and the team was contending. Problem was, the coach lied to me by telling me I would fight for the #1 job. But the incumbent was Dutch, and I was really brought in to push her. So, I left after six months for St. Etienne in France.
It was a great beginning: They wanted me to start and to keep them from being relegated. I played two awesome games and then I shattered my knee — tearing my ACL, MCL and PCL.
GSB: Oh no!
Arianna: It was really bad — they couldn’t operate for two months. Then I was in a hip-to-ankle cast.
On the flip side, the club was great, paying for my apartment even though my contract was up. The French government paid for my healthcare. My mom came to help me. And my rehab facility was in the South of France.
GSB: Not to shabby…
Arianna: I know! The club also provided a great kinesiologist. He was the one who told me I could play again when most people said, ‘no way’. And, after learning how to walk again, I worked, and I worked and was able to get back out on the pitch.
Eventually, my agent found me a team in the second division in Norway, a great place to get into playing shape. My first game back, I earned the MVP. It felt so, so good. Then I went to Sweden’s second division. And then, no one else wanted me.
GSB: It sounds like that was the end of the road…
Arianna: It sure looked like it. This was 2016. Thomas, my fiancé, got a job in football in France, as a trainer for Stade Rennais. I found a team close to Rennes, Saint Malo, in the French second division but didn’t enjoy the experience.
So, in the beginning of 2017 I began my post-football career by pursuing a masters’ degree online at the Football Business Academy. That fall, I got a marketing internship with the perennial Portuguese power, Benfica of Lisbon.
GSB: Was that with the women’s team?
Arianna: No. This was for the men’s team, which was great. I really got to learn the business.
One of the highlights was a women’s match, when the U.S. Women’s National Team played Portugal at Benfica. The U.S. team’s coach at that time was Jill Ellis…
GSB: Wait a second…Wasn’t she your coach at UCLA, the coach who couldn’t forgive you for that whiff versus North Carolina? Did you talk to her?
Arianna: She came up to me and gave me a big hug. It felt weird but gave me some closure.
GSB: Glad to hear it…What happened after the internship?
Arianna: After Benfica, I went to Switzerland to finish my degree and then moved back to Rennes with Thomas to look for a job. This was spring of 2019.
I got a freelance assignment as a project manager for a Freestyle Football event at the Women’s Champions League Final in Budapest. While there, I realized for the first time that I really missed the game — I wanted to be back on the field. I was 34 at the time.
And, it’s funny how life is: The next day, I’m on a flight back to Paris and I got upgraded to first class. That never happens. Anyway, who am I sitting next to but the sporting director at PSG! We talked about women’s football, my career and then…he fell asleep…
When he woke up, he asked, ‘Do you want to play again? We need a third goalkeeper at PSG.’ I was excited, yet played it cool…
GSB: …Just like a goalkeeper…
Arianna: …I was thinking about my career after football so I asked, ‘Can you give me a job in marketing, too?’ So, I became the third keeper and also assistant sponsorship manager for the women’s team for the 2019-20 season. I was the only person working just for the women’s team in sponsorship.
GSB: What’s it like at PSG, both on and off the pitch? Do they prioritize the women’s game?
Arianna: I mean, everything at PSG is world class. Everything, from the facilities to the coaching to the front office is just…better.
Even though I was the third keeper, I trained as hard as I ever did. You just never know.
The team was playing well, on track for a Champions League spot, when COVID hit, and that was that.
Now we’re getting ready to restart with Bordeaux our opponent in the French Cup semifinals in early August. Then, like the men, we have a week-long Champions League tournament in San Sebastian, Spain at the end of the month.
As far as the business side is concerned, I am setting the direction for the women’s sponsorship effort. Of course, the COVID economy is challenging but we are moving the ball forward with several exciting possibilities.
GSB: It certainly sounds like a challenge, but given your history of overcoming obstacles, you seem very well suited to it. Let’s talk about the environment. Where does that fit in?
Arianna: Thank you. And while I am by no means a deep green environmentalist, I grew up in California and went to a Montessori school. We had environmental speakers all the time. Conservation and recycling were just part of life.
When I got to Italy, I was astonished how much trash there was there. It was all over the place. Baffling, really. I mean, my teammates had clean apartments and cars and yet they would throw trash out the window. That was so common. And horrible.
GSB: Horrible indeed. What did you do?
Arianna: I separated my trash and recyclables. It wasn’t very easy because no one really did it. Scandinavia was just the opposite. There was a special intensity to the way they recycled.
GSB: What about Paris and PSG?
Arianna: It is somewhere in between. My biggest pet peeve are the small water bottles…
GSB: Water bottles are the on-ramp to Green-Sports for so many athletes.
Arianna: I believe it.
The girls here just don’t pay attention. I mean, plastic bottles are all over the place. It drives me bonkers! And then I got an idea: Find a sponsor who will help us green our operations…
GSB: …Including those blasted water bottles!
Arianna: Yes, but also more than that. And while we haven’t found that green sponsor yet, I am confident we will do so during this coming season.
GSB: Now when I heard you on the Football4Climate panel, you mentioned that you think the sports world needs to move slowly on green, including on climate change. Why do you think that’s the case?
Arianna: Well, football is a business. A big business. So, we can’t call out a sponsor for not doing enough on climate change. We can’t change everything today.
I want to work on what we can change now and for the PSG women, that is with the plastics. And for us to solve that problem, we need to find a sponsor and we will. Women are more concerned about the environment and climate change than men and so that will help us.
Once we get the sponsor for the plastics, we can take on the next environmental challenge and implement more change. Waste, recycling and perhaps composting can be next up.
Climate? That will have to be further down the road.
GSB: I understand the “go slow; don’t rock the boat” approach. Problem is, the climate crisis demands serious action now, with a massive global decarbonization needed by 2030. How might PSG move faster on climate?
Arianna: PSG has already definitely taken some progressive actions that are also climate-friendly. They’ve instituted a green initiative in the office building, La Factory.
All plastic cups for water and coffee have been taken out. The club has given coffee mugs and reusable water bottles to every employee plus installed a machine to clean the cups and bottles on every floor.
The environment, including energy efficiency and carbon emissions control, are part of the DNA of PSG’s new training center, currently under construction. There will be organic fruit production on the 74 hectare site, with unused food offered to area schools. The construction phase is guided by a worksite charter that reduces pollution, protects the natural biodiversity of the area and recycles waste as much as possible.
Once the center is built, all waste management will be carried out on site. And a rainwater retrieval system that will make up to 90 percent of the center’s water needs.
GSB: That’s good to hear. And the more I hear about the greening of PSG, the more I see a green sponsor…
Arianna: I’m workin’ on it!
¹ A clean sheet is soccer term for shutout
Photo at top: Arianna Criscione (Photo credit: PSG)