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.
It says here that players will play the most important role in building fan interest about climate.
Last month SandSI hosted a panel, moderated by writer Dave 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.
We kick off our series with Sofie Junge Pedersen, a member of the Danish national team who plays her club football with Juventus.
GreenSportsBlog: Sofie, talk to us a bit about your football journey. When and how did you get started?
Sofie Junge Pedersen: Good to talk with you, Lew.
I grew up in a small town about 15 km (9 miles) outside of Århus, Denmark’s second biggest city, and started playing football at around five years old. I’d play with my brothers and cousins and it was just great fun. There was a good youth club nearby that was committed to girls football and so I played with them.
Also, my parents — my mom is a headmaster and my dad is a computer programmer — really emphasized that my siblings and I should have knowledge of the world. So, they would spend their money on travels instead of things. We went on trips to Africa, India, the Philippines, Peru and more. This gave me an appreciation of how other people lived and also for the environment at a young age, and that we were lucky to live in Denmark.
I moved to a bigger club in Århus and went to a high school with a sports emphasis — it’s four years instead of the typical three which allows you to concentrate on sports and studies. Then after high school, I had a year where I only played football for a better team Fortuna Hjørring, perennially one of the top two teams in Denmark. Ended up playing central midfield there for three years, from 2012-15.
We won the championship of the top Danish league once while I was there and made it to the Champions League round of 16 three times.
GreenSportsBlog: Congratulations! What happened next?
Sofie: Then I signed a contract with FC Rosengård in Malmö, the best team in the Swedish league. It was a step up in competition as compared to the Danish league. And it was like a dream team for me. Great team, great atmosphere, amazing coach.
But after a half year, I got a serious concussion, was out for a year. It was tough — I had to be inactive and sometimes I doubted I would make it back. When I finally came back, I suffered many injuries, in part because I was inactive for so long.
I remember the first time I was really happy with my play was when I was in the 2017 European Championship Final with the Danish national team against the Netherlands on their home pitch. Even though we lost, I felt like I was myself again. It was a very big moment.
GSB: Whoa…you were on the Danish National Team, playing in a Euro final? Was that your first time playing for your country?
Sofie: Before my injury I had played for the national team many times — as of now I’ve played 58 matches for Denmark.
On the club side, I wasn’t playing much with FC Rosengård after my concussion so after the Euros I went to Spain, with Levante in La Liga.
GSB: What was that like?
Sofie: It was difficult in terms of language — I had some Spanish, but it wasn’t easy — and culture on the team. I was able to improve my skills, particularly in the attacking aspects of the game. That was something I really focused on.
But I didn’t feel like this was my place so, after one year at Levante, I went back to Vittsjö, Sweden in 2018 where I felt more comfortable.
GSB: What made you more comfortable with the Scandinavian way of football versus the Spanish?
Sofie: In Spain it was more authoritarian than what I was used to. In Denmark, in Sweden the whole culture around a team is more like “Freedom Under Responsibility.” It’s less authoritarian. The coaches have clear tactics of course but the players have input into the tactics — we can inject our own style.
So, at Vittsjö I was only there four months in 2019 but I loved it, the community really supported us and, playing in the style that I liked, and I played well.
During that time, I played in some qualifying playoff games for the Danish national team for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the playoff and thus didn’t qualify but I played well. And that is when Juventus saw me play. So, they signed me in December 2018 to join them for the second half of the 2018-19 season.
GSB: How has that been?
Sofie: It’s been amazing, 180° different from Vittsjö. I’m so happy to be here. You can feel it’s a huge club with a worldwide following. And they really invest in the women’s team — fans come to watch us even for road games far away, we travel the day before for our away matches, and the staff is terrific.
It went well from the beginning. I think I could contribute with two of my core competencies: running and also controlling the distribution of the ball.
GSB: Like a point guard in basketball?
Sofie: Yes. And we won the league, losing only one match the rest of that season.
We played one match at Allianz Stadium, the home of the men’s team. It was against Fiorentina, the biggest match of the season, we had to win it. The stadium was packed, 39,000 strong.
I never scored a match winner in my senior career but in this game, I headed in a cross in the 83rd minute and we won, 1-0.
Highlights from the Juventus-Fiorentina match including Sofie Junge Pedersen’s game-winning goal in the 83rd minute
GSB: That is so cool. How did this season go before COVID shut things down?
Sofie: We were at the top of the table, had two ties and won every other match. I played well sometimes, not so great in others. So, during lockdown I’ve been working on getting better, in particular, practicing on receiving the ball and pivoting with it into the attacking mode.
Unfortunately, we will not be resuming the season because of COVID so now our focus will be on the 2020-21 season.
GSB: That stinks but at least Juve won the Scudetto, the championship. Speaking of pivoting, let’s pivot to your social and environmental activism. What inspired you originally?
Sofie: I’ve always been sad when I see poor people. I hate the fact that we’ve created a system in which the rich get richer and the gap between them and the poor grows wider. And yes, many people have escaped poverty, but there are still a lot of poor people. It is so unfair.
Inequality together with climate change are the two most important problems to solve in the world, I think. I really can’t handle that there are so many poor people in the world and we in the west are so wealthy.
GSB: Well, it seems like you are trying to do something about it. How did you get involved with refugee work?
Sofie: I volunteered for a refugee group in Denmark for two and a half years and have always been happy to meet those people because they are so strong despite their difficult circumstances.
In 2014, I went to Ghana for the first time; I found a project with a Ghanaian group that uses sport as a tool for development. A Danish sports organization, DGI, partners with a Ghanaian organization, the Youth Opportunity Partnership Programme, or YOPP, which provides opportunities for kids and youth to play sports in the rural areas. They use the platform of sport to mobilize young people to be able to affect their own lives in the patriarchal society in which they live.
I coached the girls in the poorest area in the country and so loved it that I’ve been back four more times, each time for two weeks in the summer or winter. It’s very hard for them to get an education beyond grammar school, they have duties in the home. But they love football and YOPP works to make sure the girls get to play, that they will learn a lot from it. It is really touching.
GSB: I can imagine. How has this experience changed you? And what has it inspired you to want to do going forward?
Sofie: You know even before I went to Ghana, I had the feeling I wanted to work on the development of Africa. And my trips there have confirmed for me that this is what I want to do.
Now, as I go about my daily life, I have my friends from Ghana in my mind and heart. They drive me to want to help with YOPP and development in general while I’m playing in Italy and afterwards.
GSB: I’m sure you’ve talked about your experiences in Ghana — and also Zambia as you’ve visited there — with your teammates. How have they reacted?
Sofie: I try to tell them how it is in Ghana. Everyone should go there; I wish some of them will join me some day.
But what is interesting in when I’ve talked with my teammates about climate change. I try to get them to use refillable water bottles instead of them throwing out their cups.
GSB: You beat me to it on climate change! What sparked your passion there?
Sofie: Clearly it is affecting life now and it will affect everything and everyone eventually. I just don’t get why more people don’t see the urgency of the crisis and who don’t take it seriously.
It is so unfair that climate change hits poor people the most and it is caused by us in the developed world. I just get so angry!
That’s why I joined Football4Climate to channel that anger into a positive, telling fans that what they really care about, football, will be impacted.
GSB: I’m glad Football4Climate has launched — it is important that athletes who play the world’s most popular sport get involved in the climate fight.
Sofie: I’d like to do more with Football4Climate as I think they will help us reach out to fans who haven’t thought much about climate change, to take different actions personally and to urge their favorite clubs to take actions. I see a great potential for the group.
GSB: I really enjoyed the Football4Climate panel discussion in which you took part. There was a question from the audience that asked if the politics of climate gave you and your fellow panelists pause to speak out about it. Your one word answer — “No!” — was so powerful…
Sofie: …I just don’t understand people who don’t take the climate crisis seriously. It benefits everyone on the planet if we can slow its impacts.
Sometimes I’ve gotten some angry responses, but they don’t stop me at all. It’s a small minority.
And the thing is, everyone can make a contribution. If you love meat, just eat less of it. Ride your bike to work. It’s not that big of a sacrifice. I don’t judge people; I just want to encourage them to do better.
GSB: Amen! Beyond Football4Climate, what do you want your climate activism to look like going forward?
Sofie: Personally, I’ve changed a lot of things. Now I’m about 90 percent vegan. I try to fly less (COVID makes that easier) but I do fly more than average. My friends ask me, ‘when will you come to Ghana?’ and now I think, ‘but that means a flight’.
I do offset every time I fly but it’s always a dilemma for me. I don’t buy clothes; I keep my electronics for many years. That makes me feel better for a little while, but I know I’m no angel in this; there is always room to improve. Yet, it’s hard.
GSB: I wouldn’t beat myself about it. You are doing what you can. And your personal carbon footprint is minuscule compared to the power you and your fellow athletes have to influence many people to make changes and demand that the companies they support and the politicians they vote for take climate action. That’s your power!
Sofie: I get that. But this problem is so difficult because if everybody thinks, ‘OK it won’t change anything if I take the train instead of fly,’ then nothing will happen. So, I get inspired when I read that people take the train instead of fly and then I think, ‘yes, I will do that!’
GSB: Point well taken. It’s not an either-or-thing I guess. Do the best you can on an individual level — take the train instead of the plane in your example. Then, as an athlete, use your platform to make a difference on the macro level — say, by urging FIFA to invest in low-carbon aviation fuel.
Sofie: Yes — I’m in!
And that’s why I’m also a part of another organization, Common Goal.
We pay one percent of our salaries and that money goes to football-related social projects in places of need. As a player, you can say where in the world you want your money to go. While one percent isn’t much on our part; it makes such a difference to the people who need it.
You can follow Sofie Junge Pedersen on Instagram at @sofiejungepedersen and Twitter at @sofiejungep
Photo at top: Sofie Junge Pedersen on a trip to Zambia with Common Goal (Photo credit: Sky Sports)