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World Cup: why rugby teams take the train more than football teams

This is already one of the strong images of the Rugby World Cup, officially launched this Friday evening with the France-New Zealand opening match.

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World Cup: why rugby teams take the train more than football teams

This is already one of the strong images of the Rugby World Cup, officially launched this Friday evening with the France-New Zealand opening match. The legendary All-Blacks traveled from Lyon - where their base camp is located - to Paris... by train, not by plane. A choice applauded on social networks, and which contrasts with the policy in force in the world of football. “Let people stop telling us that it is impossible for football teams (from the French championship) to travel by train”, “Shows it’s not that difficult not to take a private jet”, “When a world-famous team (the All-Blacks) takes the TGV, there is really no excuse for the L1 teams not to do the same"...

Many remember the controversy over Paris Saint-Germain plane trips in September 2022. After a tweet from the director of TGV-Intercités Alain Krakovitch offering his services to the capital club after a Paris-Nantes plane trip, the The PSG coach had tried the humor card. “We are in the process of seeing if we cannot travel in a sand yacht,” said Christophe Galtier, arousing the hilarity of Kylian Mbappé, but the anger of a number of actors, starting with the Prime Minister. Elisabeth Borne then called on the players to “become fully aware” of the climate crisis.

A year later, rugby was conquered by rail. Of the 20 nations participating in the World Cup, 17 will take the train, including the French XV, already regular users of the SNCF. In total, according to the organizing committee, 80% of the teams' journeys - as well as staff, volunteers and referees - will be made by train. Concerning only the teams and their equipment, the SNCF, official sponsor of the World Cup, affirms that it will take charge of “more than 70% of the journeys (...) between the base camps and the various stations of the host cities ". Via its trains but also with the coaches of its subsidiary Keolis for “local connections”. A major change: during the last major football competition organized on French soil – Euro 2016 – “the partnership between SNCF and UEFA did not provide for the rail transport of teams”, indicates the railway company . Only one team, Romania, chose rail for a round trip between Paris and Lyon.

Also at the professional club level, rugby does better than football in terms of ecological footprint linked to travel. A study carried out by the National Rugby League (LNR) among Top 14 clubs for the 2022-2023 season certainly shows that the train was only used for 14% of team trips, compared to 30% for the plane. and 57% for the bus. But the observation is even more marked for football clubs: in the 2019-2020 season, 65% of journeys for Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 clubs were made by plane, 31% by bus and only 4% by train.

Aware that footballers must lead by example in a context of climate emergency, the Professional Football League (LFP) decided this season to encourage clubs more strongly to abandon private jets. For this, the body has included a new criterion for obtaining the “club license”, a precious sesame allowing clubs to receive all the TV rights to which they are entitled each year, i.e. several million euros. "In order to reduce the carbon impact of the competition, it is valued for the clubs to favor travel by train (direct) or by bus, there and back, as soon as this is feasible in less than 5 hours. “, can we read in the guide to the criteria enacted for the 2023-2024 season.

The best-known clubs, however, remain cautious, highlighting their constraints, deemed irreconcilable with the SNCF offers. Security, recovery of players, lack of supply or poorly adapted supply, especially for evening matches… The same arguments are constantly put forward by the clubs. "It's complicated to do more if a suitable transport offer does not exist. If we had trains that could run after the matches, if we had privatized trains”, the situation could change, believes a professional football player. On the side of Olympique Lyonnais, we also cite calendar problems. “The SNCF asks us for our slots two months before a match, when the League sets the day and time of the match a month before,” blows an OL representative.

Also read: Could SNCF really transport a football team like PSG?

Questioned by their own League, rugby clubs cite the same obstacles to greater use of the train. So why do they still do (a little) better? "The lesser media coverage of rugby compared to football, which makes it possible to make these trips in a slightly more serene way in terms of security, necessarily plays a role", underlines Guillaume Gouze, consultant at the Center for Sports Law and Economics (CDES) of Limoges. Some observers also note that the problem of recovery is less strong in rugby, the teams playing once a week, against every three days for the best teams in football.

Without presuming the validity or otherwise of these reasons, football's position will become difficult to maintain. The subject goes back to the government: a working group on the travel of professional clubs has been launched by the Ministry of Sports, intended to find "avenues for reflection and concrete solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions" linked to these journeys.

“There is not good rugby and bad football,” reframes Guillaume Gouze. A lot of things are being done in rugby clubs like football clubs, because many are convinced that we must act. On the football side, the signs of openness are there. Last May, RTL revealed, the SNCF organized a meeting with the executives of around thirty football clubs, but also rugby clubs, to present to them its specific offers, in particular fully or partially privatized trains. Among the participants, Olympique Lyonnais, LOSC, FC Lorient, but also Paris Saint-Germain. The capital club had previously met with SNCF executives in September 2022, following the controversy over the “sand yacht”, then again at the start of 2023. “When Galtier and Mbappé make the bad joke about the sand yacht sail, I see this as good news, because it created such a bad buzz that PSG needs to rebalance the balance. However, if PSG takes this type of action, just a Paris-Lille round trip by train for example, it has the capacity of influencer, of prescriber, which can change an entire sector,” analyzes Guillaume Gouze .

The subject has apparently gone beyond the club level, and has reached the French Football Federation (FFF). On Wednesday, the French youth team, for example, took the train between Paris and Nancy, to play the first match of new coach Thierry Henry. As for the A, the federation is considering transporting Didier Deschamps' gang by train for the France-Scotland friendly match scheduled for next month in Lille.

Although they may have strong symbolism, the travel of sports teams remains “a drop of water in an ocean of kerosene”, believes Guillaume Gouze. For the specialist in energy transition subjects, it would be better to tackle the travel of thousands of supporters to each match or competition. At the risk, otherwise, of making the wrong fight.

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