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Emma Ilijoski: "Green Games encouraged me to fight climate change"

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Players in Australia introduced Green Games to raise awareness about the relationship between climate change and football, reduce carbon pollution, offset emissions, and introduce sustainable practices at clubs. Emma Ilijoski, a defender for Canberra United, was one of the main drivers of the initiative. 

By Emma Ilijoski

It started with me going to a climate summit, where next to stakeholders, athletes from other sports were present. From a young age I have been passionate about the environment, and that day I got mentored through networking with a lot of amazing people. It inspired me hearing their stories. I made a pledge that I wanted to create something similar for the A-Leagues.

Following the summit, I asked Professional Footballers Australia if we could do something. They were excited and empowered me to continue. The PFA were the first Australian sports organisation to achieve a carbon-neutral status and started an initiative, Our Greener Pitch, to encourage players to take action and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Our Greener Pitch’s player group consists of around 15 footballers from the men’s and women’s leagues and international players like Jackson Irvine, Aivi Luik and Alex Chidiak. I am the main point of contact between them and the PFA.

It is great to hear everyone's perspectives and ideas. It feels special to be able to collaborate with players from rival teams for a cause that is so much bigger than us all.

One of our first goals was to create a green game, or a green matchday, to raise awareness about the relationship between climate change and football for everyone involved: the players, the fans, the clubs, the kids. We organised our first Green Game in March with the Women’s A-League Women match between Canberra United and Wellington Phoenix.

We focussed on three pillars. The first was being plastic-free: the government provided for reusable bottles that we handed out to the crowd and used ourselves. A lot of kids asked us to sign their bottles, which was cool because they were the main audience that we were targeting. The second pillar was to offset the carbon pollution caused by the travel of the away team, who came from New Zealand, and the third was simply raising awareness.

On the day of the match, the PFA released a report that described the impact of climate change on the A-Leagues. It illustrated how football suffered from recent floodings, heat and bushfires. Even though some parts are quite shocking and surprising, the report helps start a conversation.

For example, last season, it was an issue that a lot of games started at 2pm or 3pm as it was particularly hot, especially in the summer. We would have two drink-breaks per half, which disrupted the flow of the game. After each break, it felt like a different match.

However, the most alarming part was that after some games, we would have girls going to hospital because of heat stroke impacts. We were all feeling the effects afterwards with dehydration and headaches, but the fact that a player had to go to the hospital was scary. We play football for the fans, but at the end of the day, it's our health.

I remember my debut game for Canberra in 2021: it was the hottest day of the year, 42 degrees Celsius, and we played at 1pm. The heat definitely played a factor. That's a story that I tell, as those personal shared experiences make things relatable.

Emma Ilijoski
Emma Ilijoski in action for Canberra United

We have a voice and a platform, and we might change things. Football has been able to lead the way on many issues, whether it's equality or anti-racism. We might not necessarily get 100 percent positive feedback, but at the end of the day, climate change is something that is impacting all of us.

We are discussing how we can change the fan experience. How can we encourage fans to carpool to a game or use public transport? Can we make matchday plastic-free? Can we encourage fans to bring reusable containers and drink bottles to games? Can we get the government involved in providing water fountains for fans to fill up their bottles? I would like to see plastic drink bottles on their way out – and that could be encouraged by players bringing their own water bottles to start.

And there are endless opportunities for clubs to tap into as well. Is the playing kit sustainably made? Where are the kits from the previous season going? Could the stadium lights be solar-powered?

With the Canberra United players who are part of Our Greener Pitch, we implemented a recycling process. In our city, you can donate plastic bottles and get 10 cents in return. After training, instead of chucking our bottles in the regular trash bin in our dressing room, we put them in a recycling bin that we created.

The Green Games initiated another spark in me. When I was at the climate summit, I didn't know this would be possible to get off the ground. I wasn't sure how many people cared about it until I started speaking to them.

I felt so excited that so many players were very keen on it. To actually see it happen was very rewarding. I, but also a lot of the PFA Australia staff and players involved, had to deal with a lot of barriers and roadblocks, and it was nice to climb over those and see the Green Games come to fruition.

I feel proud looking back on it, but it also feels like unfinished business. I don't think I'll ever be satisfied because it's such a big challenge and big opportunity. How can we get bigger and better? What is the next stage?

I've learned that we don't have to be an expert on climate change. I would just advise everyone who might be hesitant to join, that we don't have to know everything about it to be passionate. We aren't the scientists. There are so many important things in this world that athletes have the power to speak on. I encourage everyone to stand up for what they are passionate about to foster a more inclusive and safer world because, ultimately, that is what football is about.