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A closed ticket office outside the main grandstand at New Lawn Stadium, home of Forest Green Rovers, in Nailsworth, England, is pictured on March 19, 2020.Michael Steele/AFP/Getty Images

From the moment soccer fans trek up a steep hill in the picturesque English town of Nailsworth and reach the New Lawn stadium, home of the Forest Green Rovers, it’s clear that this club has a mission that goes beyond wins and losses.

The first clue that things are run differently here is the name of the street that leads to the 5,000 seat venue: Another Way.

The main entrance is lined with a bank of solar panels and a row of portable toilets that when fully operational will turn urine into fertilizer. A band of environmental activists from the Sea Shepherd Society, one of the club’s main sponsors, stand ready to greet fans with a smile and a pamphlet.

Inside, none of the concession stands sell hot dogs, hamburgers or Cokes. The menu is all vegan, from plant-based nuggets to pea protein burgers and leek pies made with soya milk, béchamel and a meat substitute called Quorn. There’s oat milk for coffee and tea, and Green Cola on offer. Even the beer is vegan, brewed without the animal-derived ingredients that are sometimes used to improve clarity.

Outside, the Rovers battle it out on an organic pitch that’s nourished with fertilizer made from seaweed and trimmed by a solar-powered robotic mower. The team’s bright green jerseys are made from coffee grounds, recycled plastic and bamboo, and every now and then the advertising boards that surround the field flash “Just Stop Oil.”

It’s no wonder that Forest Green has been recognized by the United Nations and FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, as the greenest team on the planet. In February, a British environmental organization called Sport Positive ranked the Rovers first among 72 clubs in the English Football League – one level below the Premier League – for environmental sustainability.

It’s all the brainchild of the club’s owner, Dale Vince, a onetime vagabond who spent 10 years traveling around Britain in a peace convoy before pioneering the use of wind power and launching a green energy company called Ecotricity in 1995.

Mr. Vince, 60, had no interest in soccer when he was asked to get involved with Forest Green in 2010. At the time, the 121-year-old club in southwest England was on the verge of folding, mired in debt and struggling in the lower ranks of English soccer. Mr. Vince, who lives nearby in Stroud, agreed to inject some cash to keep the club afloat, and he soon became more involved.

He saw an opportunity to use Forest Green as a showcase for his eco-friendly message. “I quickly realized within two weeks that I’d be creating a new kind of football club – a green one,” Mr. Vince recalled. “And talking to a different audience, and probably a difficult audience – football fans – about the environment.”

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General views are seen before the Sky Bet League 2 match between Forest Green Rovers and Oldham Athletic at The New Lawn on April 18, 2022.MI News/Reuters

Today, Forest Green is carbon neutral and almost every aspect of its operations centre around the environment, from renting an electric bus to get players to away games to putting organic hand soap in the bathrooms. Even the game-day raffle has an environmental theme: The winner gets a Skydiamond, a type of gemstone made from carbon captured from the air.

Mr. Vince, who still heads Ecotricity, plans to go further and build a new stadium almost entirely out of wood. He’s also launched an ambassador program in roughly 100 local schools to teach kids about football, fitness and sustainability. And he’s furthering his eco-crusade through a podcast, called Zerocarbonista, and a recently published a book titled Manifesto, which contains a host of radical ideas including making food from grass.

“Ultimately, what we learned through Forest Green is that football, and sport, is a great platform for reaching people and getting them to change how they live,” he said.

His approach wasn’t welcomed at first. Other owners initially shunned Mr. Vince, viewing him as an outsider bent on taking the fun out of football. Forest Green fans also reacted with horror at the thought of losing their meat pies, sausages and burgers; some threatened to hire a food van for games.

Mr. Vince stood his ground. “I would have walked away from the club if I had to be a part of the meat trade,” he said.

As global warming and other environmental issues became more topical, attitudes changed. Mr. Vince said other owners now seek him out to discuss sustainability, and Rovers’ fans have embraced the new menu. “We sell eight to 10 times as much food now on a match day as we did 10 years ago.”.

He’s adamant that pro teams in Canada, from the NHL to the NBA, could follow Forest Green’s example. “The bigger you are, the easier it is because you have access to more funding,” he said. “People just have to have the courage to get on with it.”

There are still pockets of opposition and Mr. Vince’s stand on some issues has caused controversy. His decision to fly the Palestinian flag at New Lawn has enraged some Jewish groups and prompted a couple of sponsors to pull out of deals with the club.

Mr. Vince made no apologies for the flag. “It’s a human rights issue,” he said. “The living conditions for those people are terrible. There needs to be a two state solution.”

He has also faced criticism for supporting environmental campaigners such as Just Stop Oil whose protests recently disrupted the World Snooker Championships and the Grand National horse race. “A lot of people are frustrated and don’t know what else to do,” he said. “They take to the streets, they’re causing disruption, they’re saying they won’t accept it, and I support that.”

Most Rovers’ fans shrug off the controversy and give Mr. Vince credit for transforming the club on and off the pitch. The team has steadily improved since 2010 and last year it won promotion to League One, the third rung of England’s soccer pyramid behind the Premier League and Championship.

During a recent game against Barnsley, New Lawn was filled almost to capacity with boisterous Rovers’ fans munching vegan entrees and sipping vegan beer.

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Joe Grey of Hartlepool United has a late attempt on goal during the Sky Bet League 2 match between Forest Green Rovers and Hartlepool United at The New Lawn on April 9, 2022.MI News/Reuters

Stephen Oldschool, 75, has been a Rovers’ supporter for decades and he was leery about Mr. Vince at first. He still isn’t sold on the oat milk but he loves everything else the owner has done. “We’ve never been so high up in the league,” Mr. Oldschool said. He’s also gotten used to the mocking chants from away fans and laughed at how one opposing club got a thrill out of playing Meat Loaf songs when the Rovers visited.

Rob Terry and his wife, Julie, said coming to Forest Green games had changed the way they lived. They’ve both become vegans and they bought an electric car. They’ve also signed up with Ecotricity as their energy supplier at home. Mr. Vince “is making other clubs think,” said Mr. Terry, 51, who was decked out in a Sea Shepherd T-shirt.

For players and coaches, coming to Forest Green requires some adjusting. Players are served the same food as fans and they’re encouraged to follow the club’s example on sustainability.

Duncan Ferguson, who took over as the team’s manager in January, had never eaten vegan food before he came here and he didn’t know much about environmental issues. He’s now a convert.

“We are no doubt the guiding light teams and clubs should be following,” Mr. Ferguson said after the Barnsley game. “It’s great what they are doing. We all should be doing it, why not?”

Forest Green came up short against Barnsley, losing 5-1 and leaving the team stuck at the bottom of the standings. The loss also meant the club will be relegated back to League Two next season. Mr. Vince, who attended the game dressed in a black Sea Shepherd sweat suit, promised to rebuild the team over the summer and make another push for promotion.

Superfan Maureen Lane, who has attended every Rovers’ game since 1999, wasn’t downhearted. She cheered the players as they trudged off the field and sneered at the few fans who booed. “I’ll be here when they are up and when they are down,” she said. Then she smiled and added: “Eating my vegan burger.”

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