At this Women’s World Cup, the ball will bounce a little higher and skip a little faster. Footwork will require a precise touch. Slide tackles will leave more colorful wounds. The thought of a celebratory glide will give pause. Ankles and knees will need an extra day to recover.
For the first and likely only time in men’s or women’s World Cup soccer history, the games will be played on artificial turf. All six Canadian venues, all 52 matches across four weeks starting Saturday in Edmonton, are without a blade of natural green grass.
The decision by FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, and the Canadian Soccer Association prompted legal action last year by dozens of players around the world, who cited gender discrimination.
“There is no player in the world, male or female, who would prefer to play on artificial grass,” said U.S. star Abby Wambach, the most vocal critic on the turf issue. “There’s soccer on grass, and then there is soccer on turf.”
With FIFA dragging its feet on the issue and no hope of change before the World Cup, the complaint was withdrawn early this year. The players decided to move on and focus on the tournament. There was a silver lining: FIFA agreed not to use artificial turf in the sport’s premier competition again. (France will host in 2019.)
All sorts of high-profile sporting events take place on artificial turf, from Super Bowls to World Series. Soccer, though, is different from other sports because the ball is almost always on the ground and only three substitutions are permitted.
Both actor Tom Hanks and NBA star Kobe Bryant used social media to further the women’s cause.
“Hey FIFA, they deserve real grass. Put in sod,” Hanks tweeted last year.
Numerous studies have explored the impact of artificial turf on the game and the body. The conclusion: In fear of injury, players are less likely to use slide tackles; the stress on joints increases; skin abrasions are more pronounced; additional recovery time is needed between matches; and with the ball moving quicker, a pinball effect threatens to destroy the rhythm of the game.
“Grass is a lot easier on the body, and when you’re playing on turf, the ball is flying all over the place,” U.S. midfielder Lauren Holiday said. “In your mind, you are thinking, ‘This is how it rolls on grass. This is how it rolls on turf.’ ”
Because of the country’s long, harsh winters, many Canadian outdoor stadiums are furnished with artificial turf. The country’s best grass venue, Toronto’s BMO Field, was not available for the World Cup because the city is hosting the Pan American Games this summer.
All along, Canada’s bid to host the soccer tournament included artificial turf fields. The only other country to show interest, Zimbabwe, withdrew early in the process.
FIFA rejected suggestions of laying natural grass over the permanent artificial turf for the four-week tournament in Canada despite offers from at least one company to provide and install it at no charge. “It made me realize,” Wambach told ESPN, “FIFA didn’t want to do what someone else wanted them to do.”
Until 2004, FIFA banned artificial turf for official competition. But as the quality of turf has improved and more countries have installed it for maintenance and longevity reasons, synthetic surfaces have gained greater acceptance, particularly in northern climates.
For several World Cup qualifying cycles, the U.S. men’s team had a devil of a time playing on a stone-hard plastic surface in, all of places, Costa Rica.
“There is no more griping about it. Everybody has got to do it,” Wambach said. “Do I think it was unfair? Absolutely.”
The Americans do not like it, but they are accustomed to playing on it. Five of the nine clubs in the National Women’s Soccer League, which employs the U.S. World Cup squad and 11 Canadian players, play home games on artificial turf.
In selecting a primary training camp last month, the U.S. Soccer Federation chose a facility in Orange County, Calif., that offered both grass and turf fields. In all three tuneup matches, however, the U.S. squad played on grass.
“Our preparation has been on turf. We’re ready,” Coach Jill Ellis said. “Now I think my team actually plays better on turf at the moment. We’re feeling very comfortable on it. It’s not an issue — period.”
The challenge confronting Ellis was balancing time on the two surfaces. While not enough practice on turf might have left the team ill-equipped for up to seven World Cup games, “preserving the body is also important,” Ellis said. “We’ve built up a good ability to sustain on turf.”
As part of the World Cup infrastructure, each of the six host cities offers training grounds with artificial turf.
Still, when the games begin, players might perform differently from how they would on grass. “Your subconscious mind doesn’t allow you to play as physical,” said Wambach, who is perhaps the sport’s most physical figure.
For some, however, the fear of injury is not a deterrent.
“That’s my game; I slide,” U.S. midfielder Shannon Boxx said. “So I am going to be enjoying those scrapes. If it saves a goal, I will enjoy them.”
A few years ago, forward Sydney Leroux posted online photos of her legs ravaged by wounds suffered in a pro game played on artificial turf.
The short-term pain, though, seems to be worth the long-term gain.
“We’ve moved past this turf issue,” Leroux said. “We obviously came in very strong [with legal action], but we lost. I do think our voice was heard, and I hope it never happens again. I hope women never have to play on turf again.”