Turf war still front and center
When the 2015 Women's World Cup kicks off two years from this week in Canada, the way the ball bounces will be different than in any of the previous six editions.
All 52 matches in the half-dozen host cities will be played on artificial turf, a development considered heresy by some and an inevitability by others. In the vanguard of opposition are the American players, who say women are being compelled to play on a second-class surface.
"This is not a fight against the Canadian federation, or the players, or the venues," U.S. forward Abby Wambach said last week in Alliston, Ontario, where the team was training for a friendly match against Canada. "This is an issue with FIFA, and, I think, money, and a gender discrimination issue, hands-down. The men's World Cup will never be played on an artificial surface.
"We as the highest-level international players have a responsibility to see that we don't take steps backwards, and I think this would be giant leaps backwards in terms of the way the game is played and in terms of the way the fans watch it. It's my opinion that grass is the way the game is meant to be played for many different reasons -- safety, the beauty of the game, the longevity of players' careers. We have to put up a fight."
Wambach and other U.S. players made their feelings known last March when it became clear to them that the tournament intended to go forward with an all-turf format. The 33-year-old striker, the sport's second all-time leading scorer behind Mia Hamm, said she intends to continue mobilizing other top players to lobby FIFA for funding to overlay turf with grass.
But Peter Montopoli, CEO of the World Cup organizing committee and general secretary of the Canadian Soccer Association, said Canada's bid application was written that way when it was submitted back in early 2011 and no other options were considered. This is a done deal, he said.
Canada hosted the under-20 men's World Cup in 2007 in six venues, three of which had natural grass at the time. The final was played at BMO Field in Toronto on turf that has since been replaced with grass. It is not being used as a venue in 2015.
"There were no complaints," Montopoli said of the 2007 tournament. "That led to us bidding for the Women's World Cup. We bid according to the regulations, and the specifications were laid out.
"All the teams will be playing on the same surface. All we can do is guarantee fair conditions for all the teams involved. At the end of the day, we have big plans for this event and we're hoping to break previous attendance records."
Canada, in fact, submitted the lone bid to host the tournament. That, along with the reality the women have little-to-no political influence in the sport -- FIFA just elected its first woman to the federation's executive committee last week -- has left the U.S players feeling as if international soccer officials are imposing turf on them simply because they can.
This is not a fight against the Canadian federation, or the players, or the venues. This is an issue with FIFA, and money and a gender discrimination issue, hands-down. The men's World Cup will never be played on an artificial surface.Abby Wambach on playing the 2015 Women's World Cup on turf
"I think this is something that could be fixed if the right financial resources were put toward it, and I think we all know that," said U.S. midfielder Heather O'Reilly.
The 2015 tournament will take place in six far-flung venues around Canada: Olympic Stadium in Montreal; Frank Clair Stadium in Ottawa (still under construction); Moncton Stadium in New Brunswick; Investors Group Field in Winnipeg; Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton; and BC Place in Vancouver. All but Moncton currently have synthetic surfaces of various vintages, and that stadium will be outfitted with artificial turf before the 2013-14 season. Montopoli said all surfaces will be tested to ensure they meet the criteria of FIFA's "two star" rating system.
Grass used to be sacrosanct in World Cups. For the 1994 tournament held in the United States, California-grown slabs of sod were installed over the carpet at the Pontiac (Mich.) Silverdome. But FIFA changed its rules to allow artificial turf in international and championship events in 2004, and two venues in the 2010 men's World Cup in South Africa featured hybrid fields of natural grass reinforced with synthetic fibers. (Wembley Stadium in London, where the U.S. women won an Olympic gold medal last year, has the same kind of field.)
John Hackworth, coach of the MLS Philadelphia Union, coached the 2005 U.S. men's U-20 team that played some matches on turf in the U-20 World Cup in Peru. "In any championship, whether it's a youth state championship, an academy event, college or professional, I would much rather see games on a natural surface," Hackworth said. "It's a different game on turf. It changes your preparation, your tactics, your recovery. Our sport at the World Cup level should always be played on grass."
No one disputes that the modern version of artificial turf is superior to the first-generation garish green carpets of the 1960s, and the benefits of lower maintenance costs in programs that have to count pennies are indisputable. Debate rages on about by-products, such as greater heat absorption, potential infections from "dirty" fields, and the heightened potential for injury, either in-match or because of cumulative stresses.
But turf is making more and more inroads. Saprissa Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica, one of the more intimidating venues in the CONCACAF region, has hosted World Cup qualifying matches on its synthetic surface since 2005. It's still the rare marquee European men's club that plays on turf, but the surface has infiltrated top leagues in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden and Norway. Four of the 18 teams in Major League Soccer play on an artificial surface, as do six of the eight teams in the new National Women's Soccer League, and the 2012 CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying matches were played on turf in Vancouver.
Balls bounce higher and roll straighter and faster on turf, mitigating toward a ground game. Sliding on fake grass is akin to using a cheese grater on bare legs, leaving "rug burns" that are slow to heal. Forward Sydney Leroux of the NWSL's Boston Breakers tweeted a photo of the gruesome scrapes on her legs after her first club match this season. "It looked like I had been in a car accident or something," Leroux said. "How are you supposed to play at 100 percent when you can't slide anymore because you have all these raspberries all over your legs?"
U.S. captain Christie Rampone said she is most disappointed at the way the surface will alter the aesthetic and tactical aspects of the game. "We're used to digging in and tackling, and your mindset changes a little bit," said Rampone, 37, a mother of two who is the last active player left from the seminal squad that won the 1999 World Cup in the United States.
But Rampone said the most troubling effects of playing on turf are the long-term ones: the joint aches and general fatigue caused by pounding up and down on a less forgiving surface.
"We'll adapt, but it'll take time," she said. "We're still growing, constantly fighting, and we always have to make sure our voice is heard, and whether they change [the 2015 surface] or not, our voice will hopefully be heard."
The Canadian team has circled the wagons when it comes to critiquing FIFA and, by extension, its own national organizing committee. Last week, players contacted by ESPN.com were instructed not to comment on the issue. Only star forward Christine Sinclair had the stature to venture a restrained endorsement to reporters last week.
"I would prefer every game of mine to be played on grass, it is how the game is meant to be played," Sinclair said. "However, FIFA wouldn't have offered Canada the opportunity to host the World Cup had the facilities not been up to standard. I know the CSA [Canadian Soccer Association] will do an incredible job. Both teams have to play on the fields. I've played on many of the stadium fields we are going to play in, and it's going to be fine."
Canada women's national team coach John Herdman went further, saying he thinks the surface will produce a more "technical" game that could expose players who lack finesse.
"I'd love it if people would just put it to bed and go, 'Look, it's going to be an amazing tournament in one of the true women's football countries. Whether it's on grass or whether it's on turf makes no difference,'" Herdman said. "And for those older players that have got sore knees, well, you know, they've got new challenges, they've got to find ways of getting around that. We'll be just focused on really enjoying the experience.
"I'm hoping other teams worry about that and get distracted with all that. We'll use the turf to our advantage."
U.S. coach Tom Sermanni struck a pragmatic note.
"I would suggest that most coaches and most people who are in the game and playing the game, if asked, would say that a World Cup should be played on grass," said Sermanni, the Scot and former coach of the Australian women's team who took over the U.S. job this year. "That would be my preference for a major tournament.
"But you have to deal with facts as they are going to be. If it's being played on turf and the decision's made and there's no going back on it, then you just set yourself to getting the job done on that surface."
Sermanni will have the tricky task of determining how to divide the pie graph of training. His team needs to cultivate a comfort level for turf and the tactical tweaks it requires, but practicing on it day in and day out is too wearing, he said. Mainly, he'd like to keep the surface from renting space in their heads and blunting their style.
"You can't hold back, but in the modern game, you want players going to ground as little as possible anyway," Sermanni said. "So, in some ways, it teaches some good habits. I think losing several layers of skin on the leg, the players will pick that up themselves and adjust to the surface. The way the game is going, there's going to be more and more turf fields, and in training environments as well, because maintenance is easier and the new turf coming out is getting better and better. It's going to be the future."
Wambach accepts the fact that greener pastures may dwindle, but remains adamant that grass is appropriate for the biggest stages.
"As a veteran and somebody who is conscious and aware of wanting to leave the game better than I found it, it would be really sad in my opinion if the World Cup were totally played on turf, especially the final, or the semis, games that are life-changing for players now in terms of finances, in terms of the federation getting them money and really being able to effect change in your country and growing the game," she said.
"Look, I get it. I understand that, financially, it's more cost-effective over a 10-year period than the maintenance and upkeep of a grass field. I understand that it's important for kids to get out and get active, and if the only field you have is artificial turf, that it is important for them to go out and play. But when you're talking about the biggest, most important tournament of your life, we feel, I feel, that we deserve for it to be played in the right way, not worrying about the dollars and cents."