Coming off a runner-up World Cup finish three years ago and a run to Olympic gold in London, the United States Women’s National Team should be focused exclusively on lifting the sport’s biggest trophy for the third time when the 2015 Women’s World Cup begins nine months from now in Canada.
But instead of focusing on recreating American soccer’s proudest moment, the American team’s biggest stars, alongside top players from other countries, are fighting a literal turf war with FIFA over what they see as a clear case of gender discrimination.
In July, 40 of the world’s top players sent a letter to FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association threatening legal action over the decision to play all of the Women’s World Cup matches not on grass but on artificial turf, something the players say FIFA, which has never staged a men’s World Cup on turf and will use grass at each of the next two, would never do for men. The players argued in the letter that playing on turf is a violation of Canadian human rights laws that prohibit gender discrimination.
“We think it’s definitely a gender discrimination issue, basically because the 2026 [men’s] World Cup, the Canadian federation is trying to get that, and all those games are slotted to be played on grass,” Abby Wambach, the U.S. Women’s National Team’s star forward who is among the biggest names to sign the letter, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “So why would they make us play on turf? It’s because it’s convenient and it’s easy, so to speak, and that’s just not fair in so many ways.”
The players argued in the letter that turf is “widely recognized as inferior in international soccer” because it changes the way the game is played and puts players at greater risk of injury. American midfielder Megan Rapinoe has said that turf is like “playing on padded concrete,” and Wambach said the artificial surface would cause players to be more hesitant to go to ground for slide tackles or to attempt diving headers, the type that have helped define Wambach’s career and lead to some of the game’s most exciting goals, like Robin van Persie’s sterling score at the 2014 World Cup. Those types of plays will be less likely, Wambach said, as players try to avoid injury and stay on the field for the seven matches required to win the World Cup (American forward Sydney Leroux tweeted a picture of her bruised and bloody legs after a turf match to make the case that it causes more injuries for players).
But the major claim remains that FIFA simply wouldn’t ask the men to play on an artificial surface, and a month after sending the original letter, the attorneys representing the players think they have found a “smoking gun” that bolsters their argument. At the 2013 Algarve Cup, another international women’s soccer tournament, FIFA conducted a survey in which 77 percent of the world’s top women’s players said that their major tournaments should be played on natural grass. The results of the survey had not been made public or shown to players, even though the attorneys say that FIFA led players to believe that their opinions would be taken into account when determining playing surfaces for future tournaments.
Hampton Dellinger, the lawyer representing the women who threatened the gender discrimination lawsuit in the July letter, outlined the survey results in a new letter sent to six of the world’s regional soccer federations on September 2. Dellinger’s letter (via Soccerly) also asks the federations that govern international play to support the players’ claims without intimidating them to remain on the sidelines of a potential suit.
“The survey itself confirms the players’ understanding that their opinions were going to be listened to and acted upon, and the fact that they weren’t shows that the players were misled,” Dellinger said Thursday. “So I think it’s a very important document. … (The players) acted in good faith. They raised their concerns immediately. They thought FIFA heard them. And now we know that FIFA ignored them.”
FIFA and international and domestic federations, including Canada’s, have made a habit of listening to men’s players who don’t want to play on artificial surfaces. The Canadian men’s team refused to play on artificial fields during 2014 World Cup qualifying, and Canadian soccer officials admitted that natural grass was preferable for hosting such matches. The United States laid grass over Seattle’s artificial turf for a men’s qualifying match during the same cycle, and covering artificial surfaces with natural sod has become a routine in North American stadiums when European international and club teams refuse to play on artificial turf during friendly matches played in the United States and Canada.
Though men and women in the U.S. and Canada both play club matches on turf, the players argue that the World Cup should be different, especially given FIFA’s lack of budgetary constraints compared to clubs in the National Women’s Soccer League and Major League Soccer.
“When you’re talking about the pinnacle of our sport, the biggest tournament our sport sees, you want it to be played in the way it should be played. And that absolutely is going to be on grass,” Wambach said. “We play on field turf during our seasons, and people are up in arms that we agree to play on field turf with our clubs. But we’re talking about a very different budget in terms of the NWSL and FIFA. This being the most important event that our sport has for us, I think it should be played truly on grass.”
Indeed, FIFA brought in billions of dollars in revenue from the 2014 World Cup alone, and various estimates suggest it could be relatively cheap to install grass, especially if FIFA and the Canadian federation simply lay sod over the existing surface (though that can often lead to less-than-ideal surfaces). There are more intensive approaches, such as laying a base sand level and allowing grass to take root above the turf, that could also provide an alternative. A recent exploration of the latter alternative estimates it could cost $3 million to convert all six venues to temporary, but rooted, natural grass.
Despite the players’ calls for change, neither FIFA nor the Canadian federation has formally responded to their initial letter, though FIFA president Sepp Blatter dismissed concerns about the gender discrimination claims during a media appearance in August. The decision not to respond, Wambach said, is a wait-it-out strategy that won’t deter the players.
“They’re posturing,” Wambach, the world’s all-time leading goal scorer, male or female, international play, said. “They’re trying to call our bluff. And we’re not bluffing. We’re going ahead with this lawsuit, and we believe we have a really strong case to win.”
Dellinger said that there is no specific timeline for the formal filing of a lawsuit, as the players hopeful that they can resolve the issue with FIFA before court proceedings become necessary. There is more than enough time for FIFA to change course, but with the start of the World Cup now just nine months away, the players are “well aware of the clock, and we’re taking every step we need to to proceed in court if we have to,” Dellinger said, adding that Canadian courts have established that provincial human rights laws that prohibit gender discrimination extend to sports. “We think we’ve got strong law on our side, and we’ve clearly got the facts on our side.”
But even aside from the style of play argument or the viability of the legal case, the primary question is why FIFA won’t hold its men’s and women’s World Cups to the same standard demanded by both, and why it won’t listen to the women who say they prefer grass when the organization would bend over backward to accommodate men who made similar claims. That the tournament is taking place in North America makes those questions all the more important. This, after all, is a place where both the host and its most immediate neighbor — Canada and the United States — have women’s teams that are far more successful than their men’s sides, an area of the world that unlike some traditional soccer powers has long set a global standard for providing women’s teams with the resources they need to compete. If women can’t feel as if they have achieved some semblance of equality here, when and where will it happen?
“It’s about doing the right thing, and I think this is the right thing to do,” Wambach said. “We have to fight this fight for this World Cup and World Cups in the future. We have to make sure FIFA knows this is not OK. And they know it’s not OK. If you were to ask all of them, they know that they would never do this for the men. Sepp Blatter may think the future of soccer is field turf, but I wholeheartedly disagree. I wholeheartedly know that he would never do this for the men. We all know that.”