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Searching for a Nirvana for all through football

March 14 2024

A healthy community football landscape provides solid foundations for the professional game – as well as for society – and Leicester Nirvana has punched above its weight in the sustainability stakes with the goal of becoming the UK’s first carbon-neutral grassroots club.

Searching for a Nirvana for all through football

Nirvana’ – a state of freedom from all suffering.

For many, this notion of happiness is embedded in sport and being physically active. Sport can provide a sense of community, either through supporting a team or by being part of a club. It can provide a sense of fulfilment and belonging – a basic and key requirement for positive health and wellbeing, as outlined in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Community is the basis of society, and is at the heart of Leicester Nirvana – a grassroots club that describes itself as a “true local melting pot centred around the integrative sport of football”. 

Initially founded in the 1980s as a club for all, Leicester Nirvana switched its sole focus to youth football in 1994. For a while, youth football was all that Leicester Nirvana concentrated on, but in 2008, the club was presented with an opportunity to merge with another local side for a reintroduction into senior football – becoming Thurnby Nirvana. Then, ahead of the 2015-16 season, the senior side reverted to the traditional Leicester Nirvana moniker. 

After playing for the club as a boy, Ivan Liburd was invited to come and join Leicester Nirvana in a volunteer role. He jumped at the chance, and has been involved with the club since 2007. 

“When I was a teenager, I played football for the club and then I stopped maybe around the age of 16-18 when I had to work,” Liburd, a trustee and member of the Leicester Nirvana committee, tells Global Sustainable Sport.

“I had to sacrifice the football and get a weekend job, and then years later, someone from the club approached me and said we need volunteers. I said ‘well I don’t really coach,’ but they said ‘we don’t need you to coach. We need you to be on the committee and do some of the heavy lifting,’ and I said yes. I’ve been involved ever since.

“I played for them as a child, so when they came and asked for support, I thought why not? They gave to me, so I’ll give back to them.”

A club for all

Not only does Leicester Nirvana have teams for certain age groups, but it also offers development sessions where there is no skill level attached; they are just for kids that would like to play football.

Aside from providing a safe space for all to play the game, Leicester Nirvana has made headlines for being at the forefront of grassroots football and environmental sustainability. The club was already doing a great job of breaking down barriers for those of all backgrounds to participate in football, but it wanted to expand into other areas of sustainability.

“Part of us always wants to look at what we can do to be different – that isn’t the whole story, but it’s one of the elements that we consider when looking at ideas,” explains Liburd.

“We don’t want to operate in the normal way and in zones that people create. We wanted to step out of those zones and look at different areas; we look into strategic areas, not just operational areas.

“We do this when we look at discrimination in football. We are probably the most proactive club out there championing equality and equity in football in the UK. We know we are in that space.”

The focus on sustainability was not only prompted by a desire to do the right thing and head in a different direction – but it also arose from an issue that is faced by many in the UK: rising costs.

While conversations had begun prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown measures, the journey around sustainability did not begin until 2022.

Additionally, some 18 months ago, Leicester Nirvana opted to become a charity, which required taking on the bills for the club building. With the cost of everything from kit prices to cones, footballs and even drinking cups going up, Liburd and his committee knew that action needed to be taken.

“We knew down the line, talking about becoming a charity, that we would have to manage the building. All the bills will be our own, all of the maintenance will be ours, so we needed to figure out how to make this better long-term,” says Liburd.

“We thought about having an eco-friendly building that would generate power, and will eventually be able to pay for itself.”

Ivan Liburd, Leicester Nirvana Trustee

Ivan Liburd, Leicester Nirvana Trustee

These thoughts coincided with a member of the club meeting a representative of Leicester’s De Montfort University, which was exploring work around sustainability after having brokered a partnership with the United Nations to host one of 17 Academic Impact Hubs around the world.

“We were able to form a partnership with DMU and the UN hub to support us in becoming net zero,” explains Liburd.

The partnership was a first for the UK, with the aim of producing the country’s first carbon neutral grassroots football club.

Following the global pandemic, Leicester Nirvana and DMU were finally able to get the ball rolling. Liburd explains that the club was eager to get going, knowing that it would take five-to-ten years to generate interest, find funding and sponsors, before work on a self-sufficient building could take place.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be a quick fix, and we knew that straight away the building is not going to be the first thing we needed to talk about. It was the education, the upscaling, the knowledge and small things that we could do to begin. We had to work on setting a foundation first,” Liburd says.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘why do we want to do this, what is guiding us?’,” he adds.

The committee worked on identifying a cause, before creating a policy and a strategy on how to integrate sustainability within the club, and eventually target net-zero status.

Researchers at DMU partnered with both Leicester Nirvana and a grassroots club in Germany, SG Eintracht Peitz. The overall plan is to create two carbon neutral amateur football clubs, focusing on all aspects from travel to games, diets, the kits players wear to train, clubhouses, recycling and more. The partnership with DMU also presented Leicester Nirvana with the opportunity to head to the German capital in order to garner further ideas surrounding sustainability with SG Eintracht Peitz and FC Internationale Berlin.

As part of its efforts in becoming more eco conscious, Leicester Nirvana became an Official Member of the UN’s Football for the Goals framework, committing itself to the organisation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs resonated with Liburd, especially given his day job.

“I work a lot around serious violence, and the risk and protective factors around that, and taking a public health approach to violence,” he explains. “That’s what the SDGs are: a public health approach to achieving sustainability.”

Sustainable grassroots

Studies have shown that climate change is heavily affecting grassroots sport. A recent YouGov study found that amateur sport has struggled to thrive in conditions such as flooding, while figures also showed that extreme weather has affected 40% of football players and spectators.

Additionally, the English Football Association has previously estimated that roughly 120,000 games are lost every season due to weather conditions.

“For the last five weeks, we’ve probably had one game, or two in the last six weeks or something,” says Liburd. “So sustainability in those terms is important and is an obvious challenge for grassroots.”

Moving forward

A difficulty faced by Leicester Nirvana surrounds the organisation being run by volunteers at weekends and during the evenings. This means that there is not a member of staff dedicated to securing funding and further partnerships through research and reaching out to others.

Since becoming a charity, a goal for the club is to hire a full-time staff member to take on this job and help to advance both sustainability and social initiatives, either through sourcing funding or developing partnerships.

“We’d love to have a paid member of staff to look at projects around sustainability and then have time to galvanise all the members,” says Liburd.

“Also, my hope is that some of the young people that I’m coaching and supporting at the club will come through and start running the club as they get older.

“I’m a volunteer champion in the sense that if someone is going to volunteer, I want it to be useful for them. I always want to hear what people are passionate about, because I want them to bring that element to the club as well.”

Aside from the paid member of staff, Liburd’s ideal outcome for the club’s work in the sustainability space is to continue giving back to the community. With the introduction of an eco-building and self-sustainable aspects such as solar panels and rainwater capture, Liburd hopes to extend the space to local schools and groups to learn about sustainability.

Even after all of the hard work undertaken by Leicester Nirvana and its team of volunteers to begin this journey of environmental sustainability, self-sufficiency and becoming a charity, it all boils down to one element: community.

Leicester Nirvana nurtures talent from the age of five up to under-18s, as well as adult seniors and reserves, providing a clear pathway for young players to develop into men’s football. Nirvana embodies more than just a football club, aiming to be a platform that allows young people to access life-changing opportunities via football.

Read more about the club, here.

Images: Mark Charlton for De Montfort University and Leicester Nirvana

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