As the climate crisis threatens life on Greenland, football gives some hope

There is a story in Inuit mythology that is taught to every child from the moment they learn to talk. The legend goes that when local people treat their environment badly, Sedna, the Mother of the Sea, punishes them by gathering all of their animals in her fiery hair at the bottom of the ocean. With no animals, there is no food for the people and nature is out of balance. To keep Sedna happy, the people must comb her hair – clean the sea – so she releases the animals back into the wild.

There are a few versions of the Sedna story but this one is known by everyone in Greenland. It tells of their relationship with nature – which is not about profit but balance, where everyone respects and understands their place within the wider landscape.

That is one of the first things that strikes you when you visit Greenland and meet its incredible people. Greenlandic people are often quiet, contemplative and introverted. Their familial and community connections mean a lot, almost as much as the environment that surrounds them. They live with the knowledge that the natural elements are too powerful to be subverted to our will. When you live off the land and sea, you know how much the weather can affect your lives and you learn to respect it.

The second thing you notice in Greenland is the presence of their unlikely national sport. Despite a climate that prevents playing outdoors for more than half of the year, the appetite for football is as strong there as anywhere. In the summer, the isolated towns that litter the island’s west coast play out the world’s shortest football season, lasting just one week. In the winter, they retreat to warm sports halls to play futsal, a small-sided football alternative. Football punctuates their lives, centres community spirit and offers a glimmer of hope through the long winter darkness.

Earlier this year, we travelled to Qeqertarsuaq, a village on Disko Island in the north west of this ice-strewn island. It has a population of 800, with one bar, one school and one of the world’s most stunning football pitches – where, in the summer, the attendance includes monolithic cathedrals of ice that float in the water just next to the touchline. And a whale or two.

The vast majority of the town’s working people are hunters and fishermen. But the climate crisis is threatening these traditional industries and their way of life. The animals’ behaviours are changing. The sea ice is so unrecognisable you could basically call it open water. And the weather is unpredictable to the point of guesswork. The population is on the decline as people leave in search of other work, and Inuit culture itself is at threat.

Our film Playing On The Edge follows the Zeebs, a family who have been in Qeqertarsuaq for generations. This family of five are hunters and fishermen, but also international footballers for Greenland. They represent both the community that climate change is slowly dismantling and the sport that continues to unite it.

We joined the family and other locals as they looked forward to the sun rising for the first time in 45 days and hoped that it would be a sign of better things to come.

The Guardian