No valid argument exists for playing the 2015 Women's World Cup on turf.
If the best female soccer players in the world play on artificial turf instead of grass next summer in Canada, they will do so for only one reason: too few people cared enough about female athletes to call out FIFA.
So let's just call this what it is: sexism.
Let's not make ourselves feel better by saying it's an unfortunate, sadly unavoidable logistical hiccup. Let's not say the problem is that women's soccer players waited too long to say something. (They didn't.) Or that the women should be happy there is even a tournament in the first place, and turf is the second-best playing field anyway, so it's not that big of a deal.
The fact is that no FIFA World Cup, men's or women's, has ever been played on an artificial surface. Since 1930, FIFA has staged 20 versions of the event played by men, six by women. All were played on grass.
This isn't exactly surprising. Of course the most popular sporting event on Earth would be staged on the surface it was invented to be played on. That's just common sense. (And, come to think of it, good business.) When resources aren't an issue -- and for FIFA, worth billions, they assuredly are not -- you ensure optimal conditions during your global showcase.
That is, unless the global showcase in question involves female athletes, apparently. And unless growing and maintaining the preferred playing surface isn't easy for the host country because of climate, and therefore producing top-notch fields takes a little bit of extra effort. In that case, if you're FIFA, you look the other way. You dig in your heels and tell the women to play on the surface offered. And when your sport's most famous female stars -- not that you're able to recognize them anyway -- file a lawsuit claiming gender discrimination, you don't even respond.
The estimated price tag for laying down grass in Canada's six venues is between $3 to $6 million, or a fraction of the annual bonuses given to a handful of FIFA bigwigs.
Both the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be played on grass. Still, in a way, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. What matters most is not what other countries have done when hosting the World Cup, but what Canada would do for the men.
The key question: Would Canada put down grass for the men?
That's mostly rhetorical.
When Canada submits its official bid in a few years to host the 2026 World Cup, it will be for a tournament played on grass -- unless Canada is bidding ironically and doesn't actually want to host the event. (Insiders interviewed for this column have already hinted that if Canada wants to be taken seriously, the bid will have to include plans for grass fields.)
Of course, the timing of when Canada must submit its bid for 2026 -- likely in 2018, long after the conclusion of next summer's marquee women's event -- means we won't get our foolproof piece of evidence that this is gender discrimination. We don't get our side-by-side comparison, neat and tidy, between which excuses have no room. Sure, in 2018, when the details of Canada's bid are revealed, and it includes playing on grass, some people will say, "Hey! Wait a second! I guess this proves that the women did play their World Cup on turf because of sexism -- not because grass can't work in Canada!"
But most people won't say anything at all.
After all, Canada was the only country that bid for the women's event. (For the record, the bidding process for 2015 took place before the success of the 2011 Women's World Cup; seven countries expressed interest in hosting the 2019 WWC, with South Korea and France officially submitting bids.) And the underlying message that seems to accompany that piece of info is: Don't be so greedy, women. Female soccer players should just be happy Canada even wants to host the event; they certainly shouldn't push for conditions equivalent to those given to male athletes of their caliber.
Canada submitted a bid that included turf fields. That bid was accepted by FIFA. That makes sense. What doesn't make sense is why FIFA cares so little about its premiere women's event that it isn't willing to supplement Canada in the process of hosting. Truth is, FIFA routinely insists on modifications from bid proposals when it suits FIFA's purposes.
So why isn't soccer's governing body working with Canada to lay down grass fields?
Try naming a reason other than that female athletes don't matter that much to FIFA. They only seem to matter when it's convenient for FIFA to say they do. The organization has said that "the future of the game is feminine," but apparently that future isn't worth the pocket change necessary to ensure women play the World Cup on grass, as men have always done and will always do until grass no longer exists on the planet.
Yes, some high-level soccer is played on turf. The home fields of a few Major League Soccer and National Women's Soccer League teams are lined with artificial grass. And even some lower-level FIFA events have included matches played on the surface. But guess what? Grass is better. And in FIFA's own documents, the organization names the Women's World Cup as "the second-highest profile tournament of all the FIFA events," alongside the Men's World Cup.
So what's the difference between FIFA's two top events?
Women play one; men play the other. Also, FIFA is allowing one of them to be played on turf.
Guess which one. (Hint: it's not the one played by male athletes.)
One response to the gender discrimination lawsuit brought recently by a number of high-profile women's players has been, "What took them so long?" As in, why, if Canada was awarded the tournament in 2011, is this becoming an issue now, with only eight months left until the opening match?
This isn't just becoming an issue now. More than 16 months ago, female players were speaking out publicly in opposition of playing the World Cup on turf. (See here and here.)
Also, let's be clear: FIFA is run by men. In fact, in 2011, when the bid from Canada was accepted, there had never been a woman on the organization's executive committee, which consists of more than 20 members.
Not a single woman -- ever.
You know what male soccer players are not charged with thinking about? If FIFA has enough people in positions of power considering what's best for the men's game. You know what we don't ask our male athletes to do? Play their sport and also be responsible for calling out gender discrimination against them.
Come to think of it, perhaps there is no better evidence that this boils down to sexism than the stance taken by female soccer players. No one has more to lose than they do. Nobody would be more willing to play this World Cup on turf, if they truly believed there was no other way, if they truly believed it was fair.
Female athletes are taking action because no one else is, because not enough people seem to care.
And that's exactly what FIFA is counting on.