The clock is ticking as the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada approaches next summer.
National teams are preparing, working to identify the players that will give them the best chance for success. Fans are gearing up, some booking tickets to experience the event in person. But there is something gnawing at the enthusiasm within the women’s soccer world. The World Cupvenues all have artificial turf fields.
If you are not well versed in the nuances of soccer, this may not seem like a big issue. Many times, an artificial surface is a welcome change from bumpy grass or fields spoiled by bad weather. The FIFA president Sepp Blatter said: “Artificial pitches are the future. Wherever football is played, all over the world, there is an increasing lack of space for training and competitive pitches.”
He is right.
This applies to communities throughout the world, where artificial turf fields allow for year-round play by many more groups than any grass field could accommodate before being torn to shreds. Blatter’s statement is also relevant in professional leagues throughout the world, including Major League Soccer and National Women’s Soccer League in the United States
The issue, however, is below the surface, both literally and figuratively. It is about what the eye cannot see. It goes beyond what appears to be a pleasing, even, green and flat field.
I do not know a high-level player who would not agree about the personal wear and tear caused by artificial turf. It is not only about scraped and bloody knees. My body aches after playing on an artificial turf field. Recovery takes longer, joints feel stiffer, muscles more fatigued. These effects are less meaningful if you have one game a week, or if there is not as much riding on your performance. But in a World Cup, where each game could be the single most important one in a player’s career, feeling great physically is everything.
Even if we disregard players’ opinions on the surface, multiple studies have shown a higher occurrence of ankle and knee injuries on artificial turf.
Additionally, the World Cup will be played in the summer. Surface temperatures on artificial turf are significantly higher than the air temperature or what they are on grass (in one representative study, on a 98-degree day on grass translated to 105 degrees, turf 173). The effects of fatigue, dehydration and burning cleats/feet from the excessive heat have an impact on performance, speed of play and quality of play.
Even removing physical discomfort from the equation, we must take into account the mental implications. Players will think twice before slide tackling or sliding to save or score a goal. Even if it’s not a conscious decision, anyone who has felt turf burn would at the least have a reservation.
The American star Abby Wambach said, “I’m not going in for a diving header like van Persie, no way,” in referring to the goal by the Dutch striker in the men’s World Cup, which was played on grass. And if it is grass for van Persie and the men’s World Cup, it ought to be grass for the Women’s World Cup.
The event in Canada is not merely any tournament, nor is it the week-in, week-out domestic league play. It is the pinnacle of the game, played once every four years, the same tournament that the male counterpart costs billions (yes, billions) of dollars to prepare. The event next summer is the showcase for the progress and evolution of women’s soccer on a global scale.
I’m honestly not sure why this is even a debate, because we — players around the world of all ages and levels, the host nation, and FIFA — all want the same thing. We want an aesthetically pleasing, exciting Women’s World Cup that displays the greatest qualities of the women’s game. And we want the absolute best display of that quality.
There is a solution much simpler than the construction taking place in Qatar ahead of the 2022 men’s World Cup, and much less expensive than the previous men’s tournament in Brazil. It is estimated to cost a little more than a million dollars to lay grass in the stadiums in Canada.
The players have said they will not boycott the tournament if it is on artificial turf. The quality of play will not suffer drastically. But this is the sacred World Cup we are talking about. The men’s tournament was on grass. Why not let the women have an even playing field to put the best brand of soccer on display?