Christian Burgess: ‘It’s still not totally accepted to be a vegan in the sports world’
Christian Burgess, the English defender of Belgian surprise act Royale Union Saint Gilloise, has a wide interest in all kinds of CSR-related topics. At his former club Portsmouth FC, he loved to help their foundation Pompey in the Community. He delivered food parcels and medication during the pandemic but posted also a video in which he emphasised the importance of washing your hands thoroughly. You could also see him giving training to youngsters. On this #Morethanfootball Sustainability and Climate Action day he shares his thoughts about this topic and also tells how it is to combine a vegan lifestyle while being a professional football player: ‘The main reason I do it is for the environment, as it’s a serious problem.‘
“When I was at Portsmouth I loved playing and training the kids of the disability group. I made good friends with a couple of them and with their families. I love that. You can really make a difference and get involved. It gives them joy and you can have an impact on them as well. I still speak to some of them now via Facetime. I ask how their schoolwork is going and if they are working hard and enjoying things. It gives them confidence. One of the guys calls me his best friend. We have loads of photos together. I really like that, it’s rewarding. I like helping out on every level. Portsmouth FC has a really good charity, Pompey in the Community and we helped people with dementia, disability groups, homeless, food banks or helping people during the pandemic who lost their jobs or couldn’t leave their house. The club has a really big outreach across the city.”
“The main reason (of being vegan) I do it is for the environment, as it’s a serious problem.”
“I’m also very passionate about climate change and veganism which is a big part of my life. It’s still not totally accepted to be a vegan in the sports world. I get sometimes comments that I should eat meat. That’s funny. Some people still gave more traditional views. Some famous players promote veganism now. It’s a lot more accepted. The main reason I do it is for the environment, as it’s a serious problem. You know what? It’s only gonna drive up the problem of refugees as natural disasters will increase due to climate change. There are already climate refugees of people who have to move because it’s getting too dry, no crops, famines, or flooding. People will move to the more habitable areas. It’s a weird link but one of the main reasons I carried it on. I can prove still being able to play football and perform whilst being a vegan. It has not affected me in a negative way at all. I’m a vegan for five years and probably played one of my best football in these years.”
“Sometimes they see my vegan burger which looks nicer than their plate and they ask if they can have some of it. I let them try it.”
Is the dressing room, or even the diet or nutrition coach in the staff ready to hear your story?
“The guys here are more stuck in their eating habits than in England. They are a bit more open there for other views. Here they really like to eat meat at their meals. My brother is the same, he has to eat meat every day. Some of my teammates watched Gamechangers on Netflix and asked me some questions afterward. Sometimes they see my vegan burger which looks nicer than their plate and they ask if they can have some of it. I let them try it.”
But you know what? Union has set a goal to become one of the most sustainable clubs in Europe. I love that about the club! They asked me for ideas and have a consultancy group. They are interested in the vegan element. The club constantly wants to change little things so they initialised a place to park your bikes while coming to the game to encourage cycling in Brussels. I love that everyone cycles here in Belgium and in the Netherlands too! When I drive to the training, I see kids biking to school. Loads of them! You don’t see that in England. It helps their health and their fitness. It’s so great and it’s very sustainable. Union does little thing to encourage this healthy style. It’s great to play for a club with such ambitions and I want to be involved in these community activities.
Was it something that played a role when signing your contract at Union?
They did tell me about the values the club has, the fans have, and who are very inclusive. I thought that was great. I felt comfortable signing here. But even at clubs where the situation would be different, you could still go there and try to make an impact from the inside. I had that situation at Portsmouth. I was very vocal about Brexit being a bad thing when the referendum was happening. In Portsmouth they voted 60 percent for ‘leave’. So I didn’t agree with the fans and got some abuse. By sharing my thoughts there were also a lot of people who agreed and maybe I managed to change some people’s minds or at least made them think again. You can always try to have your impact. If they do like you as a player and a person they might change their mind.
“The last time I was in Calais, it was really nice to see a guy in a Union Saint-Gilloise jacket. He was so pleased with it. It made me proud to see him wearing apparel of the team in play for!”
What kind of ambassador role players could have according to you?
One of my teammates collects football boots for kids in Morocco. We give all of our old football gear to him. When there were floodings in the South of Belgium last year, other players held a collection and organised donations. Maybe not so much at the smaller clubs but some footballers have really big platforms and have an opportunity to use them for positive change. They raise awareness and affect kids cause they look up to you. Within the changing room, everyone has their own life and you don’t want to impose too much. I never really thought about asking teammates to join. I could indeed. I have asked though for donations from the team when I go to Calais and the guys have always been very generous. I leave with loads of stuff in my car. The club also helped by giving away clothes from previous seasons. The last time I was in Calais, it was really nice to see a guy in a Union Saint-Gilloise jacket. He was so pleased with it. It made me proud to see him wearing apparel of the team in play for!”