Shawn Coates/Canadian Soccer Association
At the beginning of August, American women’s soccer guru Jeff Kassouf reported on his Equalizer blog that a group of American players had retained legal counsel and sent a threatening letter to FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association alleging discrimination for playing the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf.
The matter got traction in the mainstream press: Chris Selley brought it up in a National Post editorial, Mark Steyn and Hugh Hewitt talked about it on the radio, and a variety of Canadian newspapers carried wire articles on the potential suit. There was plenty of discussion on social media, with American fans again showing support for their players. I’d hoped the players had made their point and the story would go away on its own, but in Sports Illustrated Grant Wahl made it clear the case is still open. On Twitter this weekend, American soccer reporter Caitlin Murray reported that Alex Morgan said legal action was “imminent”.
So if the Americans are determined to keep the issue in front of the press it’s time for some context. Not everybody writing about this knows much about soccer in general, let alone Canadian soccer or the American women’s game. With that knowledge it does not take a very close examination before the self-interested speciousness of these objections becomes apparent; on no level beyond superstitious handwringing do the complaints have a whiff of validity.
The letter to FIFA and the CSA is dated July 28, 2014; fewer than eleven months before the tournament’s opening game on June 6, 2015 and over three years after the tournament was awarded to Canada, with artificial turf as part of the bid, in May 2011. This is the threat of a lawsuit, not a lawsuit itself, and with time running out to make a change (if time is not out already) the players must be very optimistic that the legal system will produce an extremely rapid resolution, that FIFA will play ball without a lawsuit, or that none of it will wind up mattering. Kassouf has the letter available on his blog.
Only some of the players represented are named: German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, Brazilian winger Fabiana, Mexico’s Teresa Noyola, Spainish captain Verónica Boquete, and from the United States Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and Heather O’Reilly. All have played in the United States: Fabiana hasn’t been back since WPS folded in 2010. Boquete only just left the Portland Thorns. Angerer, Noyola, and the Yanks currently play in the NWSL.
None of these women avoid artificial turf when it’s their money on the line. Wambach plays for the Western New York Flash at the artificial turf Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, New York. After spells with Western New York and the Seattle Sounders (both artificial turf) Alex Morgan now plays for the Portland Thorns at the artificial turf Providence Park. Her Portland teammates include Angerer and until recently Boquete. Heather O’Reilly plays with the Boston Breakers at the FieldTurf-surfaced Harvard Stadium. Noyola turns out for the Houston Dash, who are on grass, but has made stops at FC Kansas City (Durwood Soccer Stadium, artificial turf) and the Seattle Reign (Memorial Stadium, artificial turf). Fabiana’s mostly been on grass, though she did play for the Breakers in 2009 and 2010 and earlier this year tried to sign with Sweden’s Tyresö FF, who play at the artificial turf Tyresövallen. Boquete was at Tyresö before joining Portland; her long resume includes stops on artificial turf fields in Buffalo and Philadelphia.
Why are these women so appalled at artificial turf for the World Cup, to the point of putting their names on a legal complaint, yet still willing to put their careers on the line and play on it for their clubs? Does artificial turf acquire some magical injurious property during international fixtures? Is spending multiple seasons on artificial turf safer than a couple weeks during the summer?
Studies have been done on the risk of injury from artificial turf, in soccer, for both men and women. I wrote about this last March when Wambach first got herself in the news telling kids to get off her all-natural lawn: there are different types of injury on third-generation artificial turf versus grass, but no difference in injury frequency. One study from Sweden examined 19 men’s and 6 women’s elite teams and found “[t]he incidence [. . .] of acute (traumatic) injuries did not differ significantly between artificial turf and grass, for men [. . .] or women” on surfaces like those to be used in 2015. Most American women’s soccer players are university-educated; it’s bizarre that they don’t know better, or can’t hit Google long enough to find out whether scientists are busy directly contradicting their anecdotal arguments.
To be fair the anti-turf letter barely pretends there’s actual risk. It says “a recent FIFA study concluded that elite soccer players ‘perceive the injury risk to be higher on football turf pitches than on natural grass’.” Using perception as a point is weaker than no point at all.
What of discrimination? It’s not unlawful to annoy Abby Wambach but sexism is the point upon which legal action would stand or fall. Morally, Canadians pride themselves on their fairness in gender relations and won’t enjoy the thought that our national soccer federation might be discriminating against women. Luckily, there’s no evidence that we are.
Three of Canada’s five professional men’s soccer teams play on artificial turf (Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Edmonton, Ottawa Fury); a fourth (Toronto FC) did until 2010, and the fifth (Montreal Impact) uses Olympic Stadium’s artificial turf for occasional matches. The
only most recent* FIFA men’s tournament Canada has ever hosted was the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and of that event’s six stadiums three were artificial turf. Two natural grass stadiums were used mostly for minor games and the newest artificial turf stadium, Toronto’s BMO Field, hosted a semi-final and the final.
The main argument the letter-writers have to suggest discrimination by the Canadian Soccer Association is the Canadian national men’s soccer team’s vocal dislike of artificial surfaces. I am not a lawyer but “the Canadian men’s players are prima-donnas” does not seem like a compelling legal argument. Anyway, the men played at the artificial turf Commonwealth Stadium in a friendly just last year and have played competitive matches on artificial turf at the 2013 and 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cups as well as World Cup qualifiers in 2008.
FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association aren’t rejecting grass out of sheer cussedness. There are only three sizable grass stadiums in the entire country and one, BMO Field, is unavailable due to the 2015 Pan-American Games. Another, Saputo Stadium, is with a capacity of 20,592 viewed as too small for marquee World Cup matches. This leaves little Moncton Stadium, which had been grass, but since it would have been the only grass pitch in the tournament it was converted to artificial turf in May.
So why didn’t FIFA take one of the other bids which promised all-grass stadiums? What other bids? The only other country that bid for the 2015 Women’s World Cup was Zimbabwe and they dropped out. The objection that no senior men’s or women’s World Cup has been played on an artificial surface is, in this context, sheer Luddism; only recently has artificial turf has become safe and consistent enough for top-flight soccer so of course some tournament would always have to be “the first.” This is the case with any innovation. For example, in 2022 the men will play in the first World Cup ever held during the height of a desert summer in stadiums built by slave labour. (Perhaps they should file a discrimination suit.)
So what solution do the potential plaintiffs want? That’s one thing their letter doesn’t say. “Fortunately, based on our consultations with athletic field experts, we have determined that there are several affordable ways to host the 2015 World Cup on acceptable grass surfaces,” writes our correspondent, but apart from the suggestion that only American-based players are fit to tell the world what playing surface is “acceptable” specifics are curiously omitted.
Installing safe permanent grass across the country within months in stadiums not designed for it during the height of a Canadian winter is borderline unthinkable and not even the most raving partisans dare suggest it. Sarah Gehrke and Linda Eriksson had an interesting middle-of-the-road idea at The Soccer Desk, suggesting a method seen at the 2013 Women’s European Championship: lay down grass on a layer of sand two weeks in advance of the tournament and let it take root, temporarily, over top of the artificial turf. Freeing six stadiums for two weeks prior to the first World Cup training session or friendly is, alone, a considerable barrier. June is the middle of the Canadian soccer calendar and two weeks at six stadiums, on top of the existing FIFA requirements, is actually a long time: Toronto FC’s last game at BMO Field was only eleven days before the U-20 Women’s World Cup’s opened there.
The fatal flaw is that the plan may not even work here. Olympic Stadium and BC Place are indoors so it would be difficult getting the grass to grow at all, while the fields at Ottawa and (especially) Winnipeg feature high-banked stands that cut down on sunlight. The stadium used for the European Championship, Nya Parken, has relatively short single-deck stands with limited roofing and was originally designed for grass. If disaster results you can’t remove a few tonnes of sand and grass from Olympic Stadium the morning of the game. Complaints about novelty and safety can’t be answered by a risky plan never tried at any World Cup and hardly done anywhere at all, with no studies about its effects, improvised at short notice from a single not-entirely-relevant example.
Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever
An option is to put temporary grass over the artificial turf surfaces. I say “an option”; in fact it would make every complaint worse. The quality of these surfaces is laughable; what else would you expect from what are essentially sod sheets on a mat rubbing over the top of a plastic pitch? We’ve seen these systems used in MLS friendlies, in the 2011 Gold Cup, in the occasional national team game, and the results are almost invariably ridiculous, especially if there’s the slightest drizzle. More World Cup matches at all levels have been played on artificial turf than temporary grass and no professional club in Canada would dream of making such a pitch their long-term home; the discrimination factor only intensifies. To the right is a photo I took at the Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium in Tucson, Arizona, where grass was laid over an artificial-turf baseball diamond for a Canada – Denmark friendly in January 2013. It speaks for itself.
On the other hand, temporary grass would reduce Canada’s home-field advantage. The Canadian senior women have played recent matches on the Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Edmonton artificial pitches, with additional games at Edmonton and Vancouver already scheduled. There’s still time for them to play at Ottawa, Moncton, and Montreal before 2015, and I think we can bet on at least two of those cities getting friendlies. The Canadians will know those surfaces better than anybody else in the world, unless strips of sod are laid over top of them to satisfy the whims of Canada’s highest-profile opponents. It’s noteworthy no Canadian players are named or mentioned in the letter even though the stakes are just as high for them and their voice would be worth ten times as much to the CSA as Abby Wambach’s.
Or perhaps these players want the World Cup to be relocated at the last minute. The list of countries which could feasibly host a World Cup on grass at less than a year’s notice is a short one: the United States.
None of this is to dispute that top-quality grass is, in wholly non-scientific, subjective ways, “nicer” than artificial turf. When you run on it, it feels like something your body has spent millions of years evolving for. To a spectator a good grass pitch screams “soccer” in a way plastic never can, although if you can instinctively catch the whiff of the dirt and the feel of the blades from twenty-five rows up a 60,000-seat stadium you have sharper senses than I. But the same aesthetic arguments say we should play only in intimate little stadiums on the oceanside or in the mountains, with high-priced fat cats banned in favour of supporters who’ll shout themselves stupid for ninety minutes, and that any team ranked below, say, eighth in the world should be excluded by fiat. None of these things happen because we recognize that major soccer events aren’t about making a small number of obsessives perfectly happy, but about bringing the best competition available to the largest numbers possible and, yes, making money. Artificial turf is part of that.
To put it in the words of a top female player I can’t do better than to quote England star Casey Stoney, in a recent article for the BBC:
From my point of view, it is not ideal, you want to play on grass where possible. But I’ve spoken to some of the England squad, who played on the same pitches at the Under-20 World Cup in Canada recently, and they told me it did not cause them any problems.
They said the pitches were good and the ball moved quite quickly, which can sometimes be an issue with artificial turf. The reality nowadays is that we train on pitches of this kind day in, day out and we are used to matches too as Everton and Liverpool both play their Women’s Super League games on an artificial pitch at Widnes.
I also doubt that Fifa is going to change its mind now, so we will just have to prepare in the right way by training on that surface beforehand. From what I’ve seen, the stadiums in Canada are fantastic and I’m sure it will be a great spectacle for women’s football.
If I’m totally honest, though, my biggest concern right now is to make sure I am there.
(notes and comments…)