Special Series: Football4Climate

Morten Thorsby Brings Climate Activism from Norwegian to Italian Football

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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.

SandSI hosted a panel in June, 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.

Sofie Junge Pedersen, a member of the Danish national team who plays her club football with Juventus, started off our series.

Part II featured Arianna Criscione, an American who brings 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.

In today’s series finale, we return to Italy, this time to Genoa where we found midfielder Morten Thorsby of Serie A side Sampdoria. The Norwegian national team member is not content to just talk about climate; he wants to lead on climate action. 

 

GreenSportsBlog: I know you’re nearing the end of the “restart” of this strangest of seasons so I appreciate you taking the time to talk about football and climate. (NOTE: This interview was conducted about five weeks ago; the 2019-20 Serie A season concluded this past Sunday) On the football side, when and where did you get your start in Norway as a youngster?

Morten Thorsby: I grew up near Oslo, playing many sports; football of course, and also tennis, skiing and skating. At age 15, I concentrated solely on football because that’s where I saw a professional future. I was playing on the top levels of national teams in the under 16s, the under 21s

By 17 I was playing with Stabæk in an Oslo suburb. The club had been relegated from the top Norwegian league a year before I arrived but was promoted back up the next season in 2014.

At the same time, Bob Bradley became our manager…

GSB: …The former U.S. Men’s National Team coach?

Morten: Exactly! It was amazing that a guy of his stature came to a small club like Stabæk. But he loved the culture and the passion of the club and the supporters. It was wonderful. And he believed in me.

GSB: What position do you play and how do you describe your style of play?

Morten: I’m a hard-working midfielder, a strong runner, someone who will attack and score some goals.

GSB: Sounds like you have similarities with Coach Bradley’s son Michael, a long-time stalwart of the U.S. National Team and Toronto F.C. of Major League Soccer (MLS).

Morten: Yes, I think there is some validity to that comparison.

I only had a half-season with Coach Bradley, transferring to S.C. Heerenveen in the Eredivisie, the top league in the Netherlands at age 18 in the summer of 2014. This was a natural and important step for me to a top team in one of the better leagues in Europe.

 

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Morten Thorsby while playing for Heerenveen in the Eredivisie, the top league in the Netherlands (Photo credit: S.C. Heerenveen)

 

It was great there as I played five seasons with the club. The culture, the fans and the history of the club were all at the top level.

And then at the end of 2018, in mid-season, I signed with Sampdoria of Genoa in Serie A, the top league in Italy. The club also has a great history, culture and fans. It was always a goal of mine to play in a top five league¹ in Europe and so, at 24, this was a natural and exciting next step.

GSB: That is quite an upward trajectory, Morten! Congratulations. How did it go, coming into a Serie A club in the middle of the season?

Morten: It was difficult. I didn’t get to play at all in the first 10 games. And then the manager was fired.

Things changed going into the 2019-20 season when Claudio Ranieri was hired as manager…

GSB: Claudio Ranieri, the man who led Leicester City to one of the most improbable titles in football history in 2015-16? That Claudio Ranieri? What’s he like to play for?

Morten: That’s the guy! Let’s just say you listen when he talks.

Under Ranieri, I started to play a lot and found a comfort level. We were in the middle of the table (standings) when the season was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic in March.

We started back up a couple of weeks ago, playing in empty stadiums. I scored my first goal for Sampdoria in our first game back, a loss at Inter Milan. We still have some work to do to make sure we stay above the relegation zone and so I am excited for a strong finish.

GSB: I’ll be watching as we get every Serie A game here in the States. Let’s turn to your political side, your climate activist side. Where did that come from?

Morten: My interest in and engagement in politics began in high school in Norway, going to meetings, trying to find my way. I finished high school in Holland when I started to play with Heerenveen. I was alone in a small city so I read a lot in my spare time, including about climate.

GSB: What were you reading?

Morten: I read about “Keep It In The Ground” as in the need to keep fossil fuel assets like coal, gas and oil in the ground if we’re going to have a chance to keep temperature increase to 1.5°C in The Guardian. I read a lot of 350.org founder Bill McKibben’s writings.

The problem was that, as I read more, and understood more about the scale of the climate crisis and the systemic nature of it, the sadder and more anxious I got.

I realized:

  1. These climate problems will not be solved in five minutes.
  2. We’re going to have redo the way we do everything.

And then I thought, ‘Oh man, how is it no one is thinking of this. Changing our way of life is too big, it’s too complicated!’

GSB: I know that thought. It’s paralyzing. How did you overcome it?

Morten: It wasn’t easy. I mean, as I advanced in football, my free time became minimal. I did talk about climate with teammates, with the club. I tried to use my platform.

GSB: How did that work out?

Morten: It was a challenge at first. It’s hard to get political in the football world — most football people are only into football. And since climate change is seen as being in the realm of politics, I kind of felt like a lone wolf among the players.

The good thing was that my club, Heerenveen, was amenable to engaging on environmental initiatives.

One was having every player bike between the stadium and the locker room — of course there was a culture of cycling in The Netherlands. And it turned out to be faster that way. I had been doing it on my own my first two seasons with the club. And then once the program started, everybody really seemed to enjoy it — aside from on the cold, rainy days, of course.

Also, the main sponsor for the club is a solar company. The stadium now has solar panels on the roof, making it one of the greenest in the Eredivisie.

 

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Morten Thorsby (Photo credit: Morten Thorsby)

 

GSB: What has the climate conversation been like in Italy?

Morten: Cycling to work wouldn’t happen here. It’s just not in the culture.

As to politics, the prevailing attitude is that politics and football don’t mix, they shouldn’t mix. I disagree with this sentiment.

GSB: So do I…

Morten: …Of course football and politics are intertwined.

I am happy that several players have gotten involved in the racism, Black Lives Matter debate.

But there are so many things that are not spoken about. One is climate change. Another are the terrible conditions for workers coming from Bangladesh, India and elsewhere to build the 2022 World Cup stadiums in Qatar?

GSB: And not speaking about these issues is, in fact, a political decision.

Morten: Absolutely.

Everything we love about football, watching great athletes compete across borders, culture, among all races. Which is political in the sense that this how we want the world to be. Where everyone has a fair shot. That’s football.

Unfortunately this is not how the world is now.

So football needs to show the way as to how the world should be.

GSB: And football players — and athletes more broadly — are actually in a perfect position to lead on issues of climate, race and others. These are big, systemic, global problems that we as humans are behind in solving. Well, every athlete has been behind at some point. What do athletes do? They come back. They overcome obstacles. They — you — can show the way on how to overcome these problems.

Morten: I believe as athletes, we are part of society just like every one else. We have the platform and the ability to reach out to so many people in powerful ways. We really need to use this.

GSB: So, on climate specifically, now that you’re in Italy, how has it been to talk climate at Sampdoria?

Morten: I’d been outspoken about climate before I arrived so I have continued to do so here. Sky Sports interviewed me, which was great.

But of course, this being my first year and a half, it has really been about me fitting in with the team, learning Italian has been important as well.

GSB: Ovviamente…Of course! And it sounds like it has gone well, climate advocacy-wise and football-wise so far.

Morten: …We’ve got a lot more to do on both.

One thing I have done is that I no longer fly, aside from my football-related travel. And then I offset my carbon footprint from the air travel I do for Sampdoria or the Norwegian national team.

GSB: That’s a great thing to do and share with your fans. One final thing: How did you get involved with Football4Climate and what are you looking to do with them?

Morten: Well, it was a coincidence at first. I kind of randomly bumped into Geert Hendriks of Sport and Sustainability International or SandSI last summer and loved what they’re about.

We talked a bit about what we could do together and how football could get more involved on climate. It’s been difficult to find new footballers to join in on climate. Even those who are socially conscious have their own things.

So, when Geert came to me about Football4Climate and the panel discussion with David Goldblatt, I thought ‘we have to start somewhere!’

GSB: What did you think of the discussion?

Morten: I was very happy with it. We got into real issues regarding the climate crisis, thanks in large part to the questions Goldblatt asked. The gist of the conversation was spot on: Football has to face the climate issue now, because the sport itself is being affected now and so are its fans.

 

Epilogue: Sampdoria rode a July hot streak — the club had a stretch of five wins in six games last month — to assure it would remain in Serie A for the 2020-21 season, which starts September 19. Thorsby is making the most of his short off-season, meeting with an environment minister of the Italian government in Rome.

 

¹ The top five leagues in Europe are generally regarded to be, in alphabetical order: Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain), Ligue Un (France), Premier League (England) and Serie A (Italy)
Photo at top: Morten Thorsby celebrates with his Sampdoria teammates (Photo credit: U.C. Sampdoria)

 


 

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