Our England men’s football team’s incredible run to the Euro 2020 final captured hearts and minds across the nation, creating a rare moment of national unity and celebration. Despite the result, their journey has given us all hope, inspiring many to pull on a shirt and sing their support or kick a football about with their friends for the first time in ages.
But great achievements on the pitch can also lead to even better ones off it – and now is the moment to seize it. As the nation’s favourite game, football is uniquely placed to address some of the pressing challenges facing our country as we get back to our feet.
Obesity is certainly one of those challenges that has been made worse by the pandemic. According to the NHS Health Survey for England, almost nine million (27%) adult men are now classified as being obese, with 22 million (68%) overweight. These are frightening statistics and provide the clearest indication yet of the scale of the health crisis facing the country. Despite the lifting of lockdown restrictions, it is a challenge that we are unlikely to see reversed in the short term without a concerted effort by public health authorities.
We know obese people have a much higher risk of suffering complications or even dying from COVID-19 while also being vulnerable to diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer – putting an unbelievable strain on the NHS, economy and local authority public health budgets. What was a national emergency before the first lockdown in March last year has now well and truly been brought back into the spotlight by the pandemic.
As we recover from COVID, we need to tackle the obesity challenge head on – and football can play a really important part.
The role sport can play in helping people get fitter and healthier is well known, and football is one of the most effective ways of getting men active. Physically active adults are 20-30% less at risk of dying. Football is much more than an activity though. Amateur footballers are proven to be 3.5% fitter and healthier than those participating in other sports. It has also been proven to reduce more than 203,000 cases of physical and mental health disorders in adults, showing how transformative regular kickabouts with a bunch of mates can be.
However, quality facility provision is one of the biggest barriers to football participation and tackling the obesity crisis among men, with only one in eight football clubs satisfied with the quality of their pitches, and thousands of playing opportunities lost to poor conditions every year.
At the Football Foundation, we know from experience the transformative impact football facilities can have on people’s physical and mental health, and it’s only right communities up and down the country are able to access great places to play. However, they do not always have the knowledge, skills or access to funding needed to make local projects happen.
While the weight of responsibility for facility provision lies with local government, a mixture of budget constraints and finding the right level of support continues to provide a heavy burden for many.
We appreciate the funding structures for local authority investment can be complex, with different departments looking to fund different outcomes. But combining budgets for health and wellbeing, youth provision, community cohesion and other funding streams can be an effective way of securing the investment required to match fund community football facilities.
The Premier League, The Football Association and the Government joined forces in 2000 to form the Football Foundation. Over the past 21 years, we have worked in close partnership with local authorities up and down the country, funding over 17,000 grassroots projects which have delivered thousands of new facilities, helping to encourage men to get active and lose weight.
The work we have carried out alongside local authorities has had a life changing impact on men’s physical health, including the delivery of the Man vs Fat programme across 68 of our funded sites. More than 90% of players have lost weight and got fitter as a result.
These partnerships don’t end once the facilities have been built. We stay closely involved, working alongside local authority public health and leisure departments to ensure that communities get the most out of their facilities and that the funding stretches as far as it possibly can.
We know more still needs to be done, which is why continued investment in new grassroots facilities is so critical. We now have a real opportunity to harness this new wave of football euphoria to build the facilities that will enable more men to play football. This is why we encourage all local authorities to get in touch with us to see how we can meet the obesity challenge together.
Robert Sullivan is CEO of the Football Foundation