Why Soccer Players Hate Astroturf

Every World Cup game ever played has been played on real, living, photosynthesizing grass. Until now.

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Aug 9 2014, 10:00am

Rune Mathisen/Wiki

Every World Cup game ever played has been played on real, living, photosynthesizing grass, but FIFA is trying to make women play next year's games on an utterly reviled artificial surface.

This week, 40 top players from around the world sent a letter to FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association, demanding that the games be played on natural grass, just like the Men will in Russia and in Qatar.

Their grievance is hardly surprising—it's widely accepted that artificial grass is awful to play on: In their letter, the athletes likened it to "concrete." They're not wrong, but why, exactly, do soccer players hate artificial grass so much?

The first generation of the stuff, produced by Monsanto, was called AstroTurf and debuted in Houston in the '60s. That grass, if you can even call it that, was fucking awful. I know from personal experience. Back in the 1990s I played a baseball tournament at the SkyDome, which was outfitted with AstroTurf. It felt like running across a rug, and it meant that diving for a fly-ball resulted in rug burns.

I was far from alone in my dislike of the original turf, and even the next generation didn't fare much better. Soccer clubs started installing second generation AstroTurf material in the 1980s, but by the mid-1990s, the majority had removed their artificial pitches because it caused injuries, and the quality of the game deteriorated.

The third, and current generation sounds a little better, and deploys a combination of silicon coated fibers—the grass looking part—with little rubber granules on top of an expanded polypropylene base.

But despite improvements in the artificial pitch, the vast majority of elite FIFA players continue to believe that the top level matches should be played on real grass, according to a study FIFA did on player perceptions.

There are a few good reasons for that. According to the study, pro-soccer players experience more fatigue, and soreness related injuries. One common gripe is a phenomenon called "turf toe," which occurs when grip on the field is too hard, and feet slide forward in their shoes. The result is either a jammed toe nail, or breaking the toe altogether.

Injuries are one aspect but actually playing the game, because of fake grass' different physical properties, is more challenging as well.

"Soccer is all about touch. [Real grass] is a better touch. During the World Cup, we saw players go sliding and landing in all kinds of directions," Carrie Serwetnyk told the CBC. "They have the privilege of landing on grass, which isn't as hard."

Even the FIFA study drew the same conclusions, with a majority of players saying that home teams with fake grass have an advantage in a match.

The injury concern is less clear. A recent study in the Journal of Sports Medicine, "found no evidence that playing matches or training on (artificial turf) raises the risk of soccer players sustaining injury," according to the Toronto Star.

None of this is to say that fake grass is useless—far from it, in fact. It's helping in situations where the costs of maintaining a grass field are too high, with wear and tear being a major factor, especially lower levels of the game. It's also useful for pitches located in parts of the world where the climate isn't suited to grass. Countries with extreme cold are one such example, as are places like Southeast Asia.

But, given the number of objections it's definitely worth considering why women playing World Cup soccer should be artificial turf guinea pigs.

The hope is that their letter sends a strong signal to FIFA and the CSA that this issue needs to be discussed and solved before the tournament. "Our team has access to leading consultants in the field of turf management and can lay out in detail the real grass options that will allow the best women athletes in the world to play on the best playing surface," Tristram Mallet, one of the athletes' attorneys told me over email.

FIFA hasn't yet responded to the letter, according to Mallet. Although the players aren't willing to boycott the tournament altogether, there are legal options—both in court and human rights tribunals—and Mallet remains hopeful that the public letter will be enough to convince FIFA to sit down at the bargaining table and discuss workable solutions.

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