Viewers of the FIFA World Cup this summer will notice a few differences from last summer’s tournament: For starters, this time the players will be women, and the Canadian climate will be quite a bit different from Brazil.
But perhaps the biggest difference is that the 2015 Women’s World Cup will be played on synthetic surfaces. Each of the six stadium sites that will host matches has an artificial field – or, rather, pitch.
When FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the sport’s government body, awarded the tournament to Canada and it was clear that synthetic surfaces were in play, the reaction from some competitors was not positive. In fact, a group of 84 soccer players (including U.S. stars Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan) representing 13 countries filed a lawsuit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association. Their filing made claims about the inferior safety and playability of synthetic fields, but was focused more on the issue of equity; the lawsuit claimed gender discrimination based on the argument that, if it were a men’s tournament, it would be played on natural grass. That suit was dropped in January 2015, and it was clear the tournament would go ahead on artificial turf.
Not all of the feedback was negative, however.
“A lot of these players [in] North America are used to playing on turf, so it won’t be a major shock. Because pretty much all our home matches over the last two years have been on turf,” said Canadian coach John Herdman. “It’s a consistent surface for our players.”
Herdman noted that the players on his team had chosen to view the artificial turf as a potential competitive advantage, and have worked to become experts on how to play on it.
Testing and upgrading
FIFA hired professor Eric Harrison, a sportsfield consultant from England, to inspect the fields where the tournament will be held. He determined that each sites meet FIFA 2-Star standards (the organization created this designation and accompanying testing protocol to differentiate fields whose performance is suitable for professional-level competition from FIFA 1-Star fields, which are designed for high-use recreational applications).
Harrison concluded that playing the matches on high-quality artificial turf fields was a better option than playing on lower-quality natural fields, a worry given the harsh Canadian winters: “Football (soccer) turf in good condition is a good footballing surface, as is good-quality natural turf. In countries like Canada, where most of the country experiences extremely harsh winters, preparing high-quality natural turf venues is a challenge. This is made all the more difficult when training fields are added to the list of fields to be prepared. A late winter would bring incredible pressure to bear on preparing such grounds for the Women’s World Cup.”
For its part, FIFA issued a statement noting that synthetic turf is increasingly being used for soccer and is a big part of how the game is played in many parts of the world: “Football turf pitches allow higher usage and are easier to maintain,” the statement read. “This is especially important in developing markets where the number of quality pitches is limited and where constraints on know-how and finance at times prevent appropriate maintenance. Football turf pitches are also more resistant to adverse climate. Overall, as part of its development programmes, FIFA has already implemented approximately 300 football turf pitches across the world.”
To help address concerns, the decision was made to replace the fields at two of the six sites – Edmonton and Vancouver – in preparation to host Women’s World Cup matches. These are two of the highest-profile venues: Edmonton will host the opening ceremony, and Vancouver the tournament finals.
In large part, the field at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, where 11 tournament games will be played, was replaced due to aesthetic concerns. That stadium hosts Canadian Football League games, and the worry was that, even after removing the yard lines and other markings, a faint trace of the paint would be visible when Women’s World Cup games are televised in high definition. The existing field had been in place for five years and was expected last three more, but it was replaced with a Shaw PowerBlade Elite synthetic field in April and early May at a cost of about $800,000.
The situation was more involved at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, which regularly hosts large events ranging from concerts to monster truck shows. While the field met FIFA’s 2-Star requirements, the general consensus was that improvements were needed.
“We know that Vancouver is an issue,” said Tatjana Haenni, FIFA’s head of women’s competitions, at a January news conference.
Shortly thereafter, bids were solicited for the turf to be replaced at the stadium, which also is home to Vancouver Whitecaps FC, a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise. The new field surface is from Polytan and is called LigaTurf RS+ CoolPlus WorldCup Edition.
“It’s the same surface that’s used for training by Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund (two high-level German professional men’s soccer clubs),” says Jim Grozdanich, assistant general manager at Centaur Products Inc., which was selected to install the new field. That process took place in a very busy 12-day period in late May using a double-crew to speed things along.
Grozdanich points out that three MLS teams in the United States – Seattle, Portland and New England – play on synthetic surfaces.
“They all play on FieldTurf with black rubber infill; that’s common in the NFL and at colleges, as well,” he says.
The new Polytan field in Vancouver takes a different approach: a new infill (called Bionic) is being used. “And we use a lot less of it than is required in other systems,” adds Grozdanich.
That’s because a long-lasting 30mm Poly-Shock pad is installed beneath the playing surface. “That provides drainage, though that’s not a concern at this stadium, which has an open-and-close roof,” he explains.
The bigger benefit is a field that is “billiard table” smooth, as opposed to more traditional gravel bases.
It does come at a cost: The Vancouver field replacement came in at more than $1 million (USD).
“There is a fair cost involved with the Poly-Shock pad; it represents about 25 percent of the cost of the entire system,” Grozdanich says. “But it has shown that it has a quality of safety and performance over a longer period of time.”
The field that was replaced had a 40mm fiber height; the new field is 60mm, in large part because BC Place has also been awarded the World Cup for Sevens Rugby (to be held in March 2016), and the governing body of that sport requires a minimum of 60mm fiber height. Other fields with even taller fibers successfully host high-level soccer, notes Grozdanich, pointing to the White Caps FC2, a team in the Professional Soccer League, which plays at the University of British Columbia on a 65mm field.
The color of the new field is also different; the old model was olive green, while the new surface is what Polytan is calling its LigaTurf RS+ CoolPlus WorldCup Edition.
Each host site for the tournament also must furnish three synthetic training fields, and a number of those fields were upgraded, as well, in advance of the Women’s World Cup. That makes 24 fields in all, spread out across the country that must be presented at world-class standards. It’s a tall order, and the person overseeing the effort is Don Hardman, “chief stadia officer” for the event.
In late March, Hardman convened a meeting in Edmonton of groundskeepers from all of the tournament and practice sites to discuss field maintenance protocols leading up to – and during – the tournament.
“We had close to 50 people at the National Turf Maintenance Seminar [whom] we hosted in conjunction with FIFA,” Hardman explains. “We tried to get the boots-on-the-ground men and women; the ones actually maintaining the pitches both at the stadiums and the training sites. We wanted to get everyone together and present a cohesive and consistent plan and package of maintenance.”
The two-day seminar included both classroom and “on-pitch” field sessions.
“We discussed the preparation of the surface; the preventive maintenance, and the remediation that has to take place following winter snows here in Canada,” says Hardman. “Also, what the regular regime should look like in terms of brushing and tining the fields, and preparing the infill in advance of the tournament.”
At the heart of the maintenance program is a six-week package to prepare fields: It began with a once- to twice-weekly brushing and cleaning cycle on fields, increasing as the tournament nears.
“During competition, that will become about three times a week,” adds Hardman, “and the day before each match, we’ll do a maintenance brushing of the pitches. That way, from both a performance perspective and an aesthetic perspective, they’re ready to go and they’re going to pop on TV.”
Also covered were topics related to field lining, and the critical importance of field dimensions in FIFA competitions. And the seminar discussed in detail FIFA’s field testing protocol. While all stadium fields went through the FIFA 2-Star certification process in 2014, the 24 match and training fields will go through their official testing in late May, just before the tournament begins.
“Even if the fields are currently certified, we want to ensure they are in the best condition possible and have as recent a test as possible before the competition kicks off,” says Hardman.
One of the key messages delivered to the sportsfield managers at the seminar: No matter how high-tech your fields are, the way they are maintained is crucial to how they will perform.
Hardman says the sports turf managers in attendance understood this point well, but the education provided will be conveyed to others at their facilities.
“Groundskeepers, whether it’s on natural or synthetic surfaces, take great pride in their products; sometimes they face an uphill battle in convincing others of the importance of maintenance,” says Hardman. “I think one intangible legacy of this event is that we’ve really built an awareness of how importance maintenance is on synthetic fields. It’s not something you can lay down, walk away and assume it’s going to be in perfect condition for 10 years. It’s an on-going process, just as it is on a natural pitch.”
Hardman is confident that the pitches will do their part to let the world’s best players show their talents, while also offering an appearance that showcases the game to those watching in person and on television.
“This is the highest level of women’s football around the world, and they expect the best surfaces possible,” he says. “I know we have the commitment from all of our groundskeepers to do their best work.”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CANADA SOCCER AND ISTOCK