World Cup women challenge artificial turf plans

By Peter Gwynne, Contributor, Inside Science

Next year’s women’s World Cup in Canada will stand out as a unique soccer event, thanks to a decision that played out this past summer.

FIFA, the ruling body of world soccer, and the Canadian Soccer Association, which will host the event, have decided that the tournament will be the first full-fledged World Cup to be played on artificial turf. But an international group of elite women players, including U.S. stars, protest that the decision is discriminatory and say that artificial turf is an unsuitable surface for international competition.

The players assert that the six stadiums in which the games will be played should cover their turf with real grass – the surface of choice for every men’s World Cup since the tournament started in 1930.

In addition to discriminating against women, they say, the choice of artificial surface carries greater risk of injury than grass fields and diminishes the quality of soccer for players and spectators. They assert that it would be relatively easy and inexpensive to lay real grass over the artificial surfaces in the six stadiums chosen for the 30-day tourney.

Scientific studies suggest that the injury fears may be overblown. However, experts insist that the nature of soccer changes subtly when it is moved from grass to artificial turf.

In a letter to FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association in July, the players’ lawyer, Hampton Dellinger, called for a conversation about the choice of surface, as reported by the Associated Press.

“The best players in the world deserve premier playing surfaces,” Dellinger wrote. “Simply put, artificial turf is not a premier surface in the soccer world.”

To date, the threat has failed to spark any change. But the issue will likely continue to bubble during the nine months before the tournament starts.

FIFA asserts that the use of artificial turf pitches next year is not – well – ground-breaking. Three of the six stadiums in the 2007 under-20 men’s World Cup, which also took place in Canada, featured some surfaces of artificial turf.

Further, the organization says, it permits only high-quality turf fields that fulfill its so-called 2 Star rating to host top international games. This standard requires close replication of natural grass with less maintenance, FIFA claims.

The surfaces for each of the six stadiums are already laid, mostly with a surface produced by the Montreal, Canada company FieldTurf. However, said Richard Scott of the National Organizing Committee for the tournament, FIFA must still test all the stadiums and practice pitches, before the tournament to confirm that they meet the 2 Star rating.

The quality of artificial turf has improved significantly during the past two decades, said Steve Bush, owner of Bush Sports Turf, a Milan, Illinois company that lays artificial turf and grass pitches.

“The original Astroturf was basically carpet rolled out on concrete or asphalt,” Bush explained. Modern turf is far more complex. It starts with a base layer of expanded polypropylene polymer. Above it, silicone-coated plastic fibers two to two-and-a-half inches long effectively take the place of blades of grass. To hold the fibers upright, manufacturers insert a layer of ground-up sand, rubber, or both. “So it’s much softer and safer than Astroturf,” Bush said.

It also has the key advantage of requiring less maintenance than real grass, particularly in regions with large variations in temperature and other meteorological conditions.

Part of the reason many players dislike artificial turf is the perception that it causes more injuries and exhaustion than grass.

“It is not only about scraped and bloody knees,” National Women’s Soccer League player Yael Averbuch blogged recently in the New York Times. “My body aches after playing on an artificial-turf field. Recovery takes longer, joints feel stiffer, muscles more fatigued.”

Formal data on the injury risk of artificial turf is somewhat inconclusive, in part because studies tend to treat artificial turf generically.

“There are over 30 different turf companies out there, and the quality ranges from a Mercedes to a Yugo,” said Michael Meyers of Idaho State University in Pocatello.

Last year, Meyers compared female soccer players’ injury rates on grass and FieldTurf, which partly financed the study.

“FieldTurf is clearly superior to natural grass for women’s soccer,” Meyers said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Another team headed by Jay Williams of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg reported last year on data from “eight really good studies” that counted injuries during matches and training on grass and artificial turf.

“Essentially there was no increase in injury risk for any of the injuries we looked at,” Williams said. “If anything, the numbers suggested lower injury rates for most injuries on turf than on grass.”

He added that “abrasions are higher on turf than on grass. But they don’t cause players to miss one or more days of playing or training.”

Players also object to artificial turf for aesthetic reasons.

“They don’t like the ball roll; the turf plays a little differently,” Bush said.

For example, it can discourage all-out effort. “Players will think twice before slide tackling or sliding to save a goal,” Averbuch wrote. “[A]nyone who has felt turf burn would at least have a reservation.”

Turf’s difficulty became evident early this month, when Wales played a men’s European Championship qualifying game on artificial turf in Andorra.

“It was by far the worst pitch I have ever played on,” Welsh star Gareth Bale told the media. “I can’t describe how bad, bobbly, and hard the pitch was to deal with.”

Critics of FIFA see a simple solution to the problem: Install real grass fields over the artificial turf surfaces already in place and treat the temporary grass surfaces with enough care to ensure that they maintain their quality throughout the tournament.

“It’s very simple to put grass over artificial turf,” said agronomist Trey Rogers of Michigan State University, who oversaw the first major installation of a grass field over artificial turf, in Michigan’s Pontiac Silverdome in 1993.

He estimates the cost of putting down real grass on the six Canadian pitches at about $600,000 per field.

However, FIFA and the Canadian soccer authorities seem determined that artificial turf will rule the games. Whatever surface it uses, fans hope that the soccer will be elegant, exciting, and injury-free.

A former science editor of Newsweek, Peter Gwynne is a freelance science writer based in Sandwich, Massachusetts.