Last Thursday, England played a football match against Belgium, one of our closest friends and allies. In fact, Belgium is so close that you can get from London to Brussels in less time than it takes to get to York. You don’t even need to catch a plane. So… isn’t it a bit weird that both teams, hundreds of officials and thousands of fans had to trek all the way to Kaliningrad - a Russian exclave you were only dimly aware actually existed - in order to play each other?
What a load of hassle. Think of the travel arrangements, the visa issues… and the amount of carbon we’ve spewed into the atmosphere to make it happen. Sure, the match is technically part of the World Cup (of which only two other games took place in the province), but we couldn’t help but feel that this felt somehow… inefficient, for lack of a better term. Nobody wants to stop people enjoying football, but think about all of the unnecessary planet killing! Couldn’t we have just had a kick about at Wembley or the King Baudouin Stadium instead?
And this made us wonder: What other games have been so geographically “inefficient”? Which match-ups have so far made the least geographic sense, and which of the games still to come will be the worst for crazy geography? And are there any games where playing in Russia makes more geographic sense?
Today, Gizmodo UK can reveal that the most geographically inefficient World Cup final match would be between Brazil and Uruguay, and that every non-Russia game still remaining in the tournament is less geographically efficient than if it would be played in either of the competing nations.
How We Did It
So to work this out, we took all of the matches that have taken place so far, and all of the ones that are still to come, and worked out the distance and carbon footprint of the flight for both teams to the venue using this Climatecare carbon calculator.
So, for example, for England vs Belgium we worked out that London to Khrabrovo Airport in Kaliningrad is 1774 miles and uses 0.32 tonnes of carbon for one passenger, and Brussels Airport to Khrabrovo is 1448 miles and 0.27 tonnes of carbon. We then worked out that a flight from London to Brussels direct, so that one team could fly to the other to play at home would have been a mere 411 miles, and cost only 0.1 tonnes of carbon. This means that arguably, such a fixture could have taken place with 2811 fewer miles of travel and 0.49 fewer tonnes of carbon spewed into the atmosphere.
You can also see from this some other assumptions we baked into our model: First, that teams would be flying (when you might hope that they’d shove the England team on to a much more environmentally friendly Eurostar if this match really took place). Second, where generic city codes were available we used those in the calculator - such as using LON for any London airport, rather than, say, LHR for Heathrow and LGW for Gatwick.
Thirdly, for the sake of simplicity the carbon score is calculated as though it is for one passenger flying economy on a return journey - we could have tried to simulate it for more people (23 people in business class?), but honestly in absolute figures this doesn’t matter that much as there are billions of other variables. So just treat the carbon score as just that, a score, and more of a proxy for environmental damage and geographic inefficiency than anything directly meaningful in absolute terms.
Fourthly, we made the assumption that teams and fans would be travelling from the most populous city in their country. In most cases the exact spot wouldn’t make much difference, but in two big countries - Australia and Brazil - the capital cities (Canberra and Brasilia) are a significantly smaller than other cities, and a significant distance from population centres. So we wanted a consistent rule for this because science. And given that Russia is so massive and matches are all over the place, we made the assumption that the Russian team would be starting in Moscow.
And finally - yes, we know that in reality the teams don’t fly back and forth between their home countries and the Russian venue between each match, but this is mostly a bit of fun - and to illustrate some of the crazy geography of the World Cup. So stick with it.
The Most Geographically Inefficient World Cup Matches So Far
So which matches are the most geographically inefficient? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that yesterday’s showdown between Brazil and Mexico yesterday was the most egregious. If both teams had flown in for the match in Samara, they would have travelled 29710 miles between them, compared to what would have been just 9224 miles if they’d decided to face each other in Sao Paulo or Mexico City. Overall, this as a net carbon score of 5.16. Sorry, planet.
Other geographically crazy match-ups perhaps unsurprisingly also involve South American teams: Brazil’s 2-0 victory over Costa Rica, and Peru’s identical defeat of Australia also involved a significant carbon hit.
On the other end of the scale, there have been a handful of matches that are slightly more efficient, having been played in Russia rather than the teams’ native countries. When France took on Australia, it would actually have been more costly to play in Paris or Sydney: Instead, by playing in Kazan they saved 33 miles of air travel and have a carbon score that is 0.59 lower.
If you add the totals together, we can also work out which were the most geographically efficient and inefficient groups. According to these calculations, Group E was worst for the environment mostly thanks to the inclusion of Brazil and Costa Rica. And the most efficient would be Group A, of course thanks to it including the host nation, who didn’t have to fly anywhere for their opening game.
The Craziest World Cup Final Match Up, In Geographic Terms
Of course, the World Cup still isn’t over and there are still 9 matches to go. So which team should you be cheering on for environmental reasons?
Of the possible remaining match-ups, if Brazil beats Belgium and Uruguay beats France in the Quarter Finals, their semi in St Petersburg will be the single most geographically inefficient match of the tournament - with a carbon score of 7.16, and 28,688 stupid travel miles.
The worst possible final would be if Colombia beat England, and end up taking on Uruguay for the trophy. So really people should cheer for England. Even if they don’t love for Doctor Who, the Queen, and impending cautionary tales about economic suicide, they should do it out of a love for geographical optimal fixtures.
And now that Japan has been knocked out, there are no possible combinations of teams that could make the remaining games in the tournament any more geographically efficient, where playing the games in Russia would make more sense than playing locally. Only Russia’s games are, in effect carbon-neutral.
Here’s the full table:
So what have we learned?
In reality, hosting the World Cup in one place does make some sense - as if, say, the England team had to globe-trot from Tunisia, to Panama, to Belgium, and then to Colombia, that would obviously mean a lot more geographic inefficiency. But it is definitely weird to think about how in many cases, nearby teams are flying to the other side of the world just for a game of football.
James O’Malley is the Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.