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Mathieu Flamini and the social responsibility of footballers

Interview with former Arsenal midfielder and founder of GF Biochemicals

Mathieu Flamini and the social responsibility of footballers Interview with former Arsenal midfielder and founder of GF Biochemicals
Giacomo Cosua / Positive Agency

It's not just football in players' lives anymore. The fight against social inequalities, raising awareness of climate change and the importance of sustainability are some of the new interests of the modern footballer, although there are those who have been interested in this for several years. Mathieu Flamini, in fact, during his career as a footballer he also dealt with something else. Since 2008, he has been founder and project manager of GF Biochemicals, a company that produces levulinic acid derivatives (bio based solvents) to combat the negative impact from the petroleum products in the chemical industry  - derived from plants and agriculture waste - The bio based solvents are safe substitutes and capable of decreasing carbon monoxide (CO2) compared to the incumbents made from oil. 

From water, like everything, Flamini's interest - and mission - in the environmental challenge is born. It is as a child, in fact, that on the Coast of Marsigliese (where he was born) personally lives the drama of sea pollution, and just looking at the condition of the Mediterranean comes his challenge against plastic and pollution. A personal challenge that, over time, joins the global one. Meanwhile, he has found the interest of Arsenal team-mate Mesut Özil, who together with Flamini designs the formula to combat the social inequalities and climate change through raising people's awareness and education on how to have a healthy lifestyle. You can't live healthy if the Earth isn't healthy, too.

Mathieu, you've mixed two seemingly distant worlds like football and bioeconomy. When did you realize you had to do something concrete to improve the environmental situation?

It all started from the sea. I grew up looking at the problems of the sea, the problems that began to envelop the nature in general. In particular, that of the impact of plastic on the environment, one of the most serious things that, then, is reflected in our existence. Then, when I had the opportunity to work in contact with energy and renewable sources, I began to get involved in the sustainable movement and bring solutions to what I consider to be one of the biggest problems of our time: climate change.

It is something difficult for a footballer to find time - beyond football - for such an important interest. Also because we are used to seeing footballers only as such. Why can't so many players bring out their thoughts on certain topics?

For so many years it has been more difficult for a footballer to talk about things that were not football. But that's changing, and a lot. Now, in the world where we live there is a problem of mistrust in general, but football can still be an industry capable of making people dream, even if this - especially today - is very difficult. Sport, football, can allow younger generations to dream. That is why sport must become an even more important symbol than before and must become a leader in awareness-raising. The players and the clubs have understood that it is important to have an opinion. I see that a lot of players have decided to use their resonance to make a positive impact and to create a change. We've seen it in the last few months: look Marcus Rashford with poor kids. Now there are many more athletes who have decided to talk and fight for important things. I would say that nowadays talking about important things is less of a taboo than before. People are increasingly sharing their opinions and footballers can and must do so too, especially through social media.  

You have explained to the Guardian this summer that you feel the need to see more players "thinking outside the box." You're an example of these ones, but for a young player do you think it's easier to express its ideas today or, on the contrary, with the pressure (media, fans, expectations on the pitch) is more difficult?

Over time it will become easier, now the guys who enter the world of football have some role models (Rashford, Bellerin, ed), they see that great footballers do it and this inspires the youngest. which at my age was not there, but I also speak off the field. When I was 15, there were no kids protesting in the streets about certain values or causes like climate change. We, the footballers but generally those of the older generations, have to learn from these guys. Rashford and Bellerin make me proud to be part of the football world because they use their visibility to raise awareness on important issues. They also give me more confidence that they will be more and more in the future. Let's say that today young people have more chances, but they also have much more awareness of what surrounds them.

In short, great players should make more use of their visibility. Something some football teams have done. Green policies are emerging in many sporting realities, such as your Arsenal or Forest Green Rovers. How can football have an important impact in this challenge that involves all humanity?

I have always said that footballers and athletes have a social responsibility, they are 100% fundamental in this regard. When an athlete has millions of followers you understand the impact that their message can have, and not just in football: they can have a positive impact to talk about important topics. Colin Kaepernick in this has been great. An athlete, in fact, can talk about everything from Black Lives Matter, to climate or education. Sport is one of the most important and followed platforms and it is normal that societies, athletes, we all have a social responsibility to have a positive impact and create a change of mentality. Football can help raise awareness, but climate change is an issue that goes further.

What can we do in practice?

The first thing to be done is to explain the problem of climate change to people, to raise awareness of how small changes can make an important contribution to the environment. I personally find three major factors influencing climate change.

First of all nutrition: eating more sustainable helps to contain the climate problem. The meat industries now account for 17% of CO2 emissions into the air, and by reducing the consumption of animal proteins you can have a decisive impact in reducing carbon in the air, and also, meat increases acidity in the body so it leads to tiredness, even for an athlete. I have stopped eating meat to reduce muscles problems. It's all a cycle induced by the acidity of meat and that necessarily leads you to a less healthy life, and at the same time, it affects the environment.

Then there is pollution, which is particularly heavy in cities. Every year 4 to 5 million people in the world die from air pollution, and this is impressive, also because we all now live more and more in the city and this involves many more people than before. We should change our habits to reduce the impact on the earth, that's our kind of contribution. For example, I was very pleased to hear about the changes in Milan and the measures to reduce the use of public transport desired by Mayor Sala: when I come to Milan, I move as much as possible by bike.

Plastic is the third big problem. According to the WWF, every year we ingest 250 grams of microplastic present in fish, the equivalent of a credit card which, by the way, in the sea, is less and less. And the problem is people don't care, but we can't close our eyes anymore. If we were to make the little ones aware of the importance of this problem, if we were also to make those who do not have direct contact with the sea understand the seriousness of the situation, it would already be an enormous contribution. Raising awareness of these issues is crucial.

Some players like Dybala and Bellerin have proven to be socially active. Which players do you compare to or talk about out-of-sport themes with?

With Bellerin we did a podcast three months ago where we talked about the environment. I'm very pleased with things like that. Seeing players like him stand up and mobilize the people who follow him to create a change of mindset is a fundamental gesture and that should be an inspiration to everyone. I hope that players like him inspire other athletes to talk more. Ozil worked with me a lot, too.    

Exact. Mesut Ozil was your teammate, but now he's also your business partner. You have launched together the 'Unity' project, a platform for improving people's health and raising awareness of environmental issues. This is an important initiative.

We have been friends since Arsenal and he has always had projects related to the fight against social inequalities. He lives it as a fundamental issue, while between the two I was more connected to the environment. In common we have that we are athletes and that we share the awareness that explaining how to stay healthy can save a life. We talk about healthy living: having a healthy life can save you from many things. Me, Mesut and other athletes are very lucky to have access to information on how to stay fit. We hear doctors, nutritionists, mental coaches and these help us to be at our best in our work, since we are performers. We have understood that prevention is essential. This is why our activity is important: with social media and the Internet people do not inform themselves well, there is not always verified information. We wanted to create a platform that will give everyone the opportunity to learn how to live better, so we have the chance to share reliable information based on our experience as sportsmen and experts, all being information verified by experts and academics.  

Let's close with a more personal aspect. Football teams are now totally companies. Now you are a leader of another kind company and you continue to work in contact with people. For your current role, how useful do you think it was to have lived in a football team's locker room?

Discipline, dedication and team spirit. These are the values I learned from football. I trained to always get there and stay at the top, at the highest level, so I worked mainly to improve my performance and manage the pressure, which at these levels is very high. Pressure helps you take responsibility outside the sport world as well and it's important in particular when you're a leader. From a young age you frequent the dressing room, where there are figures older than you and it is from them that you learn to behave. Above all you learn the team spirit, which in the company is fundamental. I have always compared top-level football to military forces: there you need great mental strength, as in football and life.