The World’s Greenest Sports Team Is a Century-Old Football Club in a Tiny English Town – The New Yorker

When Dale Vince became the chairman of Forest Green Rovers, a
hundred-and-twenty-eight-year-old club in English soccer’s fourth
tier, in the autumn of 2010, one of the first problems that he set out
to fix was on the menu. The club was serving meat lasagna to the
players, a practice that, Vince says, conflicted with the team’s values.
“I saw that and realized that made us part of the meat trade,” he told
me. He added, “We agreed on the spot that we’d take red meat off the
menu. Then we began to express our values into the club in all respects.
That began the journey.” Soon, the front office did away with white meat
and fish for players, staff, and fans alike. Eventually, Vince, who is
fifty-six, and can frequently be found kitted out in fashionably punk
attire to go with his long, flowing hair, changed catering companies
altogether, hiring Em Franklin, a cook at one of his favorite
restaurants near Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, the small civil parish
that the team calls home.

Forest Green is the first completely vegan professional sports team in
the world. But its ethos extends way beyond food. The team plays on an
organic and vegan field, called the New Lawn, which is fed with a solution
of Scottish seaweed that’s hand-cut and cold-pressed. No pesticides are
used to kill weeds; the groundskeeper, Adam Witchell, pulls them himself. “I’m
the only groundskeeper here, except for the robot,” he told me recently.
He was referring to Forest Green’s lawnmower, an autonomous,
solar-powered, G.P.S.-guided device they call the Mow Bot. The New Lawn’s
stadium boasts solar panels, a rainwater-collection system, drainage
under the pitch that captures excess water for reuse, and charging
stations for electric cars. In May, FIFA dubbed the team the
“world’s greenest football club.”

The team’s eco-friendly transformation began when the volunteers who ran
the shareholder-owned club had racked up an enormous debt and asked
Vince for a loan of thirty thousand British pounds to get through the
summer. Vince, a former hippie who lived in a trailer for ten years, had
founded Ecotricity, one of Great Britain’s largest green-energy
companies, in 1996, and made a fortune. (He’s said to be worth a hundred
million pounds.) Several months later, Forest Green’s board asked Vince
for more money, at which time he realized how much danger the club was
in. “We faced a very clear choice between walking away and seeing it
fall over, or rolling up our sleeves and getting completely immersed in
the club and putting every aspect of it into a different place,” Vince
told me. The only way he could right the ship, he decided, was to become
the club’s director, and his company, Ecotricity, became its majority
owner. That meant doing things his way, and for Vince, a devout
environmentalist, the opportunity to present a green message to an
unlikely audience—sports fans—proved too tempting to pass up.

Under chairman Dale Vince, the Forest Green Rovers’ club has become a platform for environmentalism.

Photograph by Stephen Shepherd / eyevine via Redux

The responses have varied, wildly. “For Dale to step in and take on the
moral and financial responsibility for a village club, he was very much
welcomed by everybody—until the day he decided to stop selling meat,”
Tim Barnard, a lifelong fan who’s written a book about the team’s
history, told me. “That upset quite a few fans.” The vegan menu has also
given rival fans plenty of good-natured ammunition. Forest Green
defender Dale Bennett says that he has heard fans yell, “You look like
you’re losing weight!” and, “We can tell you’ve had no meat!” Barnard
says that the jeers often take a more instructive tone; he has often
heard visiting fans chanting, “You can stuff your veggie burgers up your
arse!”

At the training ground, however, players have taken to the vegan
cuisine. “They used to joke, ‘I don’t know what I’ve just eaten, but it
was bloomin’ delicious!’ ” Franklin, the chef, said. “I do have the added
bonus that when they get to me they’ve just finished training, and
they’re fairly hungry.” Franklin says the proteins she uses include
Quorn (a fungus-derived meat substitute), tofu, soy milk, and nuts.
Players get their needed amino acids from a vast quantity of vegetables.
Among the converted is Bennett, who has become a vegan himself—even when
he’s not at work.

Others have a more jaded view. “There is a certain amount of resentment
from other clubs for its vaguely evangelical ecological stance that’s
backed up by the old-fashioned thing of just spending more money than
your opponents,” James Richardson, a longtime host of soccer TV shows
and podcasts in Great Britain, told me. “They do spend a lot of
[Vince’s] money—his ‘green,’ if you like. But, elsewhere in the
football world, people are delighted.”

Part of that resentment stems from the team’s success on the field.
English soccer has roughly twenty-four tiers: at the top is the globally
popular Premier League; at the bottom are the more than fifty-five
hundred non-league teams. At the end of last season, for the first time
in Forest Green’s long history, the club earned entrance into the fourth
tier (confusingly known as League Two), where it’s currently competing,
becoming the smallest club to reach the fully professional ranks. Fans
from around the world have come to watch them play. The stadium food is
highly regarded; the vegan pie placed highly at this year’s British Pie
Awards. “As much as the club is selling ecology, ecology is also selling
the club,” Richardson told me.

Vince now has even grander plans: a stunning all-wood stadium—the
world’s greenest—designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, with all of Forest
Green’s current accoutrements, plus energy-saving L.E.D. lights embedded in
the roofline. It’s still in the early approval stages; the price tag is
unknown.

Whatever its cost, it will undoubtedly give Vince an even bigger
platform for environmentalism. “At end of the day, if Dale was forcing
us to smoke twenty cigarettes a day and eat burgers made of toenails, I
think I’d have a problem with it,” Barnard told me. “But if what he’s
doing is offering high-quality food, I don’t see how even the most macho
person in the world could argue with that.”

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