World Cup turf war heads to courts

American soccer star Abby Wambach and a group of elite international players filed a lawsuit in Canada on Wednesday challenging plans to play the 2015 Women's World Cup on artificial turf.

Led by U.S. national team forward Wambach, the players filed the suit at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in Toronto naming FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association as defendants, attorney Hampton Dellinger told The Associated Press.

The players, who have no plans to boycott next year's tournament, allege gender discrimination because the men's World Cup is always staged on grass. 

The players say there is a greater risk of injury on artificial turf, and the surface impacts both how the game is played and how the ball moves.

Dellinger said real grass could be installed at the six World Cup stadiums for $2 million to $3 million. He is seeking an expedited hearing next month so that a ruling can be issued in time for the turf to be changed.

"It is a drop in the bucket in terms of FIFA's coffers,'' Dellinger said. "Canada is one of the richest nations on earth.''

Among the athletes joining Wambach are U.S. teammate Alex Morgan, Germany's Nadine Angerer, Brazil's Fabiana Da Silva Simoes and Spain's Veronica Boquete.

"The gifted athletes we represent are determined not to have the sport they love be belittled on their watch," Dellinger said in a statement. "Getting an equal playing field at the World Cup is a fight female players should not have to wage but one from which they do not shrink. In the end, we trust that fairness and equality will prevail over sexism and stubbornness."

On Tuesday, a FIFA official visiting Canada ahead of the tournament next year said there were no plans to reconsider using artificial turf.

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"We play on artificial turf and there's no Plan B," said Tatjana Haenni, FIFA's head of women's competitions.

FIFA has appointed an independent examiner to make sure the turf at the six venues meets its strict guidelines for top-tier tournaments. The consultant is traveling with a FIFA delegation currently inspecting the sites.

FIFA rules stipulate that matches can be played on artificial turf if special dispensation is granted, as it was in Canada's case. The regulations also state that all matches in a tournament must be played on the same surface.

Canada's bid for the event specified that the final match be played at Vancouver's BC Place, which seats 55,000 and has an artificial turf.

But many players, including Wambach, have been voicing their objections since the bid was accepted. They sent a letter to FIFA and the CSA in July, saying they were prepared to take the legal action.

"It totally changes the game,'' said Germany's Nadine Angerer, FIFA's reigning world player of the year. "It's not fair why our game should be changed.''

Since then, there has been growing support for the women on social media, with celebrities including actor Tom Hanks and NBA player Kobe Bryant joining the cause. Tim Howard, the goalkeeper for the U.S. men's team, also voiced his support on Twitter.

"There's so many different debates around this. But the reality is, the men would never play [the World Cup] on field turf," Wambach told the AP two weeks ago. "So for me, it's a women's rights issue, it's an equality issue."

The players have said they will not boycott the World Cup matches, which will be played in six Canadian cities.

Many players believe that FIFA and the Canadian federation could cover the six fields with sod. The real stuff was rolled onto the artificial surface at Michigan's Big House this summer for a match between Manchester United and Real Madrid.

It's not ideal, they say, but better than the alternative.

"Is it going to cost them a little bit of money? Yeah. Maybe a drop in the bucket for FIFA for the amount of money that they have," U.S. player Megan Rapinoe said last month. "It just seems like they're kind of like, 'Oh, yeah, whatever, this is just what you're going to have.' When there's an alternative option, that's frustrating."

The legal action on Wednesday, known as an application, names the Canadian Soccer Association and FIFA. Attorneys filed a brief detailing the facts and law in support of the discrimination claim and also filed a motion to expedite the proceedings.

The U.S. team will play this month in the championships for soccer's North and Central American and Caribbean region, which serves as qualifying for the World Cup next year. The eight-team, round robin tournament opens for the Americans Oct. 15 in Kansas City, Kansas. The U.S. team also plays Oct. 17 in Bridgeview, Illinois, and Oct. 20 in Washington, D.C.

The final will be held Oct. 26 at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.

The women have lost some leverage by declaring they have no plans to boycott the World Cup.

Angerer and Boquete reiterated that stance Thursday.

"Right now, we focus on the lawsuit,'' Boquete said. "And we expect that FIFA and the Canadian federation will listen to us and try to find a solution. Right now we didn't think about more than that.''

Former Canada standout Carrie Serwetnyk, the first woman inducted into her country's Soccer Hall of Fame, compared playing on artificial turf to running on a "cinder track'' and said she expects more from her country.

"Women would play on a field of glass and nails for the World Cup, they're so dedicated and mentally tough, and that's the problem,'' Serwetnyk said. "We'll do that because they love the game. And the CSA and FIFA are getting away with putting the players on the artificial turf, and they know they can't do that with the men. Men would boycott, and this would not happen. So the women are put in an unfortunate position, where of course they're going to show up and play, and that's not the kind of tournament we want to have.''

FIFA rules stipulate that matches can be played on artificial turf if special dispensation is granted, as happened in Canada's case. The regulations also state that all matches in a tournament must be played on the same kind of surface, and that it must meet FIFA standards.

FIFA has appointed an independent examiner to make sure the turf at the six venues meets its strict guidelines for top-tier tournaments. The consultant is traveling with a FIFA delegation currently inspecting the sites.

Serwetnyk said Canada's current players are in a bind when it comes to expressing their feelings on the matter. "The CSA is their boss, and it's easier for players from other countries to express feelings. ... It poses a risk for the players, and they just want to focus on making the team,'' Serwetnyk said.

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