Certain aspects of field care differ greatly between American and European soccer fields.

The differences between what Americans call “football” and what the rest of the world calls “football” are numerous, to say the least. The most basic and obvious difference is simply what the term “football” refers to. To us, it’s the crushing sport played with a brown, spheroid-shaped ball, helmets, and touchdowns. To the rest of the world, it sometimes is referred to as “the beautiful game,” played gracefully with mostly feet, using a round ball – or, as we call it, soccer.

But the differences don’t end with the shape of the ball or the terminology.

When it comes to field care, European fields, or “pitches” as they are called there, are maintained quite differently than sports fields in the U.S. These differences involve the use of different technologies, the use/non-use of pesticides and chemicals, and creativity when it comes to growing grass.

“In Europe, we tend to renovate pitches as opposed to turfing in the U.S.,” says Paul Burgess, grounds manager at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, home of renowned Spanish La Liga soccer club Real Madrid. “I think in Europe we are far less reliant on chemicals; we also use grow lights in the stadiums, we play soccer as a winter sport opposed to summer, and we tend to use more walk-behind mowers.”

Turfing vs. renovation

Turfing (sodding) is not as prolific in places like the U.K. as it is in the U.S. For example, turfing is generally only done if there is an emergency, or pitch failure, or if there is not enough time between playing seasons because of events like concerts. This is because European turf managers prefer renovation. Pitch renovation – on both match and training academy pitches – typically takes place between late May and late July, with renovation starting immediately following the last match of the season in May. Renovations typically include complete removal of turf and organic matter from the playing surface. The renovation process also involves spiking/deep-tining, fertilizing, seeding, topdressing, rolling and irrigating.

Mowing issues

Another practice popular in Europe that Burgess mentioned is walk-behind mowing. Grounds crews in Europe prefer to do many of their operations with pedestrian (walk-behind) equipment, to minimize their footprint and traffic. In particular, pedestrian mowers are commonly used on sand-based pitches in stadiums and training grounds, and the clippings are collected. Also, in Europe, pedestrian rotary mowers are used after soccer matches to pick up any surface debris and to stand the grass back up, and a pedestrian reel mower is used prior to matches to create mowing patterns and a smooth playing surface. Between matches, a ride-on mower might be used because it is quicker and more efficient.

Tony Stones, grounds manager for London’s famed Wembley Stadium – a 90,000 capacity venue – points to regular hand mowing as a best maintenance practice to keep his pitch in top shape. “Also, an attention to detail and constant monthly aeration,” are two other practices Stones considers vital.

Talking about grow lights

Regarding technological advancements in Europe, grow lights are a staple of European pitch maintenance. The use of these supplemental light racks promotes grass growth year-round. The reason for using them is three-fold:

  1. The stadiums have roofs, which means they have major shade issues.
  2. Some stadiums are land-locked and have increased in height over time, limiting light getting onto the pitch.
  3. European soccer is played over the winter months, when there are fewer daylight hours and light quality is poor.

Burgess uses grow lights extensively at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.

To use, or not use chemicals?

Fertilizer applications on European soccer pitches are generally the same as the U.S., with a mixture of granular and liquid feed applications made on a biweekly or monthly schedule, applied at a rate of 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Conditioners, biostimulants and seaweed products also are used.

But, as a whole, Europeans rely far less on chemicals when it comes to field care. This is in part due to tighter restrictions. European pesticide restrictions vary from country to country. The more northern countries have tighter restrictions (and, sometimes, even bans) compared with southern Europe. In the U.K., there are minimal restrictions. Some professional pitch managers are using seaweed products and/or bacterial products in the hope of reducing chemical inputs and becoming “chemical-free” in the near future. “Regulations are getting tougher each year,” Burgess says. “Also, we don’t use growth regulators, and we are trying, with reasonable success, to use more bacterial control.”

Shown here is the pitch at La Liga soccer club Real Madrid’s state-of-the-art practice facility. Grounds manager Paul Burgess (@paul_pburgess) tweeted this photo along with this caption: “Back to beautiful sunny Madrid, first team pitches coming on well since the renovation, [eight] days after seeding.”

At Wembley, Stones says, there is “no need for herbicides – any weeds are hand-removed.” Also, he is allowed to use only three fungicide applications per year.

Usage and other differences

At Wembley Stadium, Stones faces several challenges in keeping the pitch in top shape. Specially, he points to “turnaround times because there are so many different events, like football one day and a rugby [event] next.” Subsequently, “marking out of a pitch for the different matches – football, rugby and even NFL games” is a challenge for Stones.

Yes, NFL, as in National Football League. Recently, the NFL has played one and now two games each year at Wembley Stadium in an effort to grow American football’s global footprint. This benefits field management as well, as Stones points to the NFL games at Wembley as a learning opportunity. “The NFL crew who came over last summer was helpful,” Stones says.

Regarding best practices in Europe, most of the science, technology and advances in sports turf management have been developed in western Europe at places like the Sports Turf Research Institute in Bingley and also the Institute of Groundsmanship. Sports governing bodies like the Football Association, the Union of European Football Associations and the Federation of International Football Association play an active role in the condition and preparation of match pitches. They have guidelines for boundaries and pitch playability such hardness, ball bounce, ball roll and more.

In addition to the sports governing bodies, professional associations like the Institute of Groundsmanship and the European Stadium & Safety Management Association offer professional training and education, much like the Sports Turf Managers Association does in the U.S.