The dispute over whether the 2015 Women’s World Cup should be played on artificial surfaces will now be dealt with by Ontario Human Rights Tribunal but the row raises a broader question – should any top-level professional soccer players be asked to play on plastic?
Lawyers for the over 40 international women’s players who have objected to playing on what the industry likes to call ‘turf’ are making a case based on gender discrimination and it will be interesting to see whether FIFA or Canadian Soccer regret their decision not to even meet with the players to discuss their concerns.
The player’s and their representatives have frequently pointed out that while FIFA had apparently no worries at all about asking women to play their top tournament on an artificial surface, the men’s World Cup has always been held on grass.
Indeed there has never even been a suggestion that the men’s tournament be played on artificial surfaces and you can be sure that if someone ever did raise that prospect it would be certain to be met with a derisory response - and quite rightly too.
I understand the benefits of artificial surfaces. The local schools soccer I watch on a Saturday morning in Miami makes excellent use of plastic grass for kids games, allowing intense use regardless of the weather. Having grown up in the rainy North West of England with the frustration of games being constantly called off for water-logged pitches, I’m glad that kids in Florida and other places with heavy rain have access to surfaces that are fit for play ten minutes after a Tropical downpour. Artificial grass can be great for youth and recreational soccer.
I can also see the benefits for lower league teams in the professional game who struggle to make their budgets balance. Being able to rent out the pro-team’s field during the week without any detrimental effect on Saturday’s game can make the difference between survival and going bust for minor clubs.
And having played (albeit at the amateur level) on the early, rock-hard plastic pitches of the 1980’s I know that the modern versions are far more sophisticated, have greater ‘give’, reduce the risk of injuries and allow for a better ‘run of the ball’ and more realistic bounce than the pioneering pitches.
Indeed, if FIFA and CONCACAF wanted to make a real impact on development of the game in the Caribbean, investing in artificial surfaces in that region would make a smart move, allowing kids to play on even surfaces rather than some of the shocking fields that exist in the island nations.
But when it comes to the highest levels of the game, the opinion of the players (male and female) is overwhelmingly in favour of natural grass. MLS players may generally be diplomatic but the likes of Thierry Henry have been clear over the years that they did not enjoy playing on plastic even, in the Frenchman’s case, skipping some games to save their bodies.