Under-fire football managers are often trotting out dubious excuses for poor results. Most famously Sir Alex Ferguson cited the colour of his Manchester United team’s kit as the reason his team suffered a rare away defeat at the hands of Southampton back in 1996. During his brief spell at Newcastle United, Kenny Dalglish blamed the ball being too bouncy when held to a draw by lowly Stevenage. When he first took over at Spurs, manager Mauricio Pochettino claimed the pitch was too small and was cramping his teams’ style of play.

Well, now a group of economists have uncovered another possible explanation for poor results: air pollution.

Researchers at the German IZA economic institute say that poor air quality is significantly affecting the performance of professional footballers. Analysing player performance across all Bundesliga matches between 1999 and 2011, the study found that in stadiums where pollution levels were at their highest levels – with particulate matter greater than the EU threshold limit of 50 micrograms per cubic metre – players performed up to 16 per cent worse than in stadiums experiencing more normal air quality levels.

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What is more clear is that air pollution is a real concern. Responsible for around 5.5 million deaths a year, according to the latest analysis, ozone emissions, particulate matter (both emitted by vehicles and industrial plants) and household pollution from wood and dung cooking stoves commonly used in the developing world, are the worst contributors to respiratory problems, or aggravating existing conditions such as lung disease and asthma.

And the situation is only likely to get worse, with the world’s ageing population particularly at risk due to their greater vulnerability to heart and lung disease. 

More than half of these air pollution-related deaths occur in China (with 1.6 million deaths) and India (1.4 million), where less than one per cent of the population in both nations live in areas with ‘acceptable’ air quality as defined by World Health Organization.

And the situation is only likely to get worse, with the world’s ageing population particularly at risk due to their greater vulnerability to heart and lung disease. The UN says that the global percentage of over-60s will double by 2050; in China that population is set to grow even faster, from 16.2 per cent to 36.5 per cent

Poor air quality is most stark in our cities where, by 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population will live. 

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City leaders the world over no doubt dream of car-free urban environments, filled with green space, cycling lanes, superb public transport systems that whizz people from A to B without fuss, and pedestrianised streets that make walking safe and easy. These are all the things we know make cities great places to live, work and play, as evidenced by research conducted by the likes of Monocle and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In Copenhagen, a raft of urban planning laws have been redefining the city’s public space since the 1970s, promoting cycling over driving. The 180 per cent sales tax placed on the purchase of new cars was a key part of this.

Other cities are trying to follow suit. In Tampere, Finland’s second city, government officials are ploughing ahead with plans to pedestrianize its main street, the Hämeenkatu, and cutting off the area to cars in preparation of a new tram system coming in 2018. Similarly, Sydney’s main shopping and business thoroughfare will soon be transformed by the construction of a 12 kilometre light railway system.

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In London, which broke its annual EU air quality quota rules just 175 hours into 2016, mayoral hopeful Zac Goldsmith has promised to expand the congestion charge and make it more expensive to drive into the centre of the capital.

In Copenhagen, a raft of urban planning laws have been redefining the city’s public space since the 1970s, promoting cycling over driving. 

In Milan, officials are piloting a programme which will see the city pay people to cycle to work. A similar scheme has been operating in France, with companies paying staff to ditch the car in favour of a bike – receiving 25 euro cents for every kilometre they pedal.

The range of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to the toxic nature of the air that we breathe will only really be addressed by widespread and ambitious national government policy. The Volkswagen emissions scandal aside, the EU’s approach of forcing car manufacturers to improve the performance of their products is a perfect example of the type of sweeping changes required to make really make a difference.

Of course, underpinned by a strong global agreement to tackle global warming, these changes will come. In the meantime, specific city-wide schemes to get a handle on air pollution are very welcome. And we all have a role to play too; it is important to remember that how we use our cars and heat our homes directly impacts local air pollution levels.

It might also have an effect on whether your favourite football team picks up three points this weekend too.

– This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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