Turf burns

Comments Off on Turf burns

A senior World Cup played completely on artificial turf. It was part of Canada’s bid for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. A group of international players launched, then aborted, an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal case over the use of turf over grass. Now, with the tournament wrapped up, MARTIN MacMAHON assesses how the surfaces stood up (or not).

There is no question that artificial turf has its uses, especially in a country like ours with plenty of inhospitable weather and terrain.

At the recreational level, it is more practical and financially sensible than grass. At the professional level, it makes sense in multipurpose stadiums shared between soccer and football teams.

Artificial turf’s almost omnipresence in Canada, indeed, is the inspiration behind the name of this magazine.

But is it appropriate that it be used for competition at the very top level? Is it appropriate that it was used at this Women’s World Cup?

For the uninitiated, artificial turf has never been used at either a senior men’s or women’s World Cup. At least before this tournament.

On the one side, you have the “so what” brigade. “Artificial turf is used by a number of Major League Soccer sides, and I play on it, what’s the big deal?” — that’s the essence of what you’ll hear from these people. NWSL teams, for the most part, play on artificial turf.

American star Abby Wambach, perhaps the most vocal on this issue in the buildup to this tournament and during it, became the punchline of social media jokes. Whenever she or her team would make a blunder, out came the Twitter trolls sarcastically blaming the turf for her woes.

Other players in this argument are the turf companies themselves. They see themselves to be on the front lines of innovation, creating a consistent product that provides a practical alternative to grass. They will point to a study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine in 2013 entitled “A Meta-Analysis of Soccer Injuries on Artificial Turf and Natural Grass.”That research found no significant difference in injuries experienced between the two surfaces, apart from skin abrasions, which were more likely on artificial turf.

But ask any player which he or she prefers, and the answer will always be grass. While there are some players who won’t actively slam turf, it is difficult to imagine finding one who would actively endorse the artificial surface over the real deal.

Canadian Hall of Famer Carrie Serwetnyk has been one of the most vocal domestic critics of turf’s use in this tournament. No Canadian players signed on to a complaint filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which included big name players like Wambach; she filled that void.

“As a fan, you go into these stadiums, and it feels a bit like a shopping mall,”Serwetnyk told me at BC Place during the latter stages of the tournament. “You don’t get that sense you get from beautiful, natural grass, that just uplifts people, whether you’re a player or even a fan. We were given a more mediocre version of what a World Cup should look like.

“I think it affected everybody, and that’s unfortunate. You never want to say anything negative about your own country, but I think this will be a blip. It’s going to be an asterisk.”

The decision by FIFA and the organizers to play on artificial turf was a sexist one, according to Serwetnyk, who scoffs when asked if a men’s World Cup on this surface would ever be tolerated.

The turf was replaced at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium weeks before the opening game of the Women’s World Cup. PHOTO: IAN JACKSON/CANADA SOCCER

What If?

She also pondered aloud about what might have happened had a prominent player on the current Canadian team had spoke out on the issue. Serwetnyk didn’t mention star Christine Sinclair by name – but it was easy to read between the lines – if Sinclair had spoken out on the issue, would things have been different?

“[Canadian players] stayed neutral because obviously they didn’t want to lose their positions and opportunity on the team,” said Serwetnyk. “I can respect that on some level, but when do you stand up? There are some people who probably could have gotten away with standing up if you know what I mean. There’s some leaders that have a lot of power in this country that maybe could have said something, but decided to stay neutral on it.”

The Canadian Soccer Association dismissed the suggestion its decision to use turf was a sexist one.

“The use of high-quality turf is integral to soccer in Canada, and the suggestion that having matches played on first class football turf rather than grass would be discrimination based on gender trivializes that important human right,” read a statement from the CSA when the human-rights complaint was launched by Wambach and her cohorts. “Should the complaint proceed, the Canadian Soccer Association will demonstrate that there is no proven increased risk to players from the use of football turf over grass, as supported by numerous independent studies.

“Moreover, a string of studies have repeatedly confirmed with scientific evidence that there is no difference in the playing patterns when played on quality-controlled turf, contrary to arguments put forward in the complaint.”

Ultimately, the players who filed that human rights complaint withdrew it before the tournament began, citing a desire to focus on the competition and continue to help grow the women’s game — but it wasn’t dropped silently.

“In the face of such irresponsible actions by FIFA and CSA, the players have elected to end their legal fight,” said the group’s lawyer, Hampton Dellinger, in a statement on the day that decision was made. “The players are doing what FIFA and CSA have proven incapable of — putting the sport of soccer first.”

He didn’t stop there. The Washington, D.C.-based attorney had harsh words not just for those who endorsed the turf, but those who stayed silent on the issue.

“FIFA and CSA…will fail to host a discrimination- free tournament,” his statement read. “They have embarrassed themselves and provided further grounds for reformers to challenge their current leadership. Those that enabled FIFA and CSA to engage in discrimination and retaliation through their actions or silent acquiescence, particularly national soccer federations, should also be held to account.

“In the end, despite the challenges created by the sexism, greed, and stubbornness endemic to FIFA and CSA, the players will make the 2015 Women’s World Cup a success. The on-field skill, courage, and determination the players will display will redeem the tournament from the ineptitude and ingratitude of its organizers.”

On the other side of things, Canada never tried to hide that it was looking to host the tournament on artificial turf — it was an explicit part of the bid made to FIFA.

And, once concerns were raised about the older surfaces at BC Place and Commonwealth Stadium, specifically, the organizers ensured new turf was installed before the tournament began.

Centaur Products, the Burnaby-based company that installed the turf at BC Place, had expressed hope before the tournament began that players would change their mind after playing on it. Not so.

“I hope so,” veteran American defender Christie Rampone answered when asked if she hoped this would be the last Women’s World Cup played on artificial turf. “I think we made a big statement before the games… the women’s game is growing. Look at the fan base [at the final] and how the level has raised. You’d like to see it on natural grass, and respected as much as the men’s game has been.”

One thing is for sure. Artificial turf isn’t going away. There is an entire generation of players growing up now who may never play organized soccer on grass. And while it becomes more accepted at the youth and amateur level, there is no doubt this discussion over its role in elite competition will continue.

Beyond the aesthetics, however, there are also some concerning new developments.

This story originally appeared in Plastic Pitch #6.

A new study led by Dr. Gaboury Benoit, a Yale University professor of environmental chemistry and engineering, was published just last month, indicating that those rubber pellets in artificial turf often contain toxic, carcinogenic chemicals.

On a more anecdotal level, University of Washington coach Amy Griffin has been putting together a list of more than 150 student athletes who have been diagnosed with cancer, the vast majority of which have been goalkeepers who’ve spent a lot of time closer to the ground.

“She’s working with the [Washington State Department of Health],” says Serwetnyk, who brought this up without prompting during her interview. “We keep just tearing up grass fields and putting turf down because we think it’s easy. People are starting to know about these ailments, but still they don’t want to look at that, because it’s easy to say, ‘well, you can’t prove anything.’ But what if there is a problem?”

There is clearly much more research needed on that topic.

But if anybody thought this tournament was going to normalize the use of artificial turf at the elite level, it’s fair to say there are many souls in this country who remain unconvinced.

I made efforts to speak with Centaur Products for this article, but under the terms of its contract with BC Pavilion Corporation (PavCo), it must clear all media requests with that Crown corporation. PavCo directed this magazine’s request for an interview on the turf’s performance during the Women’s World Cup to tournament organizers.

Load More Related Articles
  • From back line to front line

    Melissa Tancredi made her Canadian national-team debut as a defender. But, thanks to some …
  • The grass isn’t always greener

    New Vancouver Whitecaps signings David Edgar and Marcel de Jong have some advice for young…
  • The turnaround

    When he first arrived in Vancouver, Marco Bustos was a homesick teen. After a few months i…
Load More By Martin MacMahon
Load More In Rest of the World
Comments are closed.

Check Also

Zero is my hero: Despite being shut out in two of three matches, Canada takes third at Algarve Cup

To finish third at a tournament, in which more than three teams were participating, withou…