The Women’s World Cup got underway over the weekend and while excitement was high after host country Canada’s thrilling win over China in stoppage time, the start of play has renewed frustrations over the controversial decision to force the women to play on artificial turf in all six venues.
After Sunday’s Norway vs. Thailand game, Norway midfielder Lene Mykjåland voiced her discontent about the short, dry turf, which she said made it difficult for either team to “get a decent tempo and rhythm.” The playing surface was watered using two fire hoses instead of the standard sprinkler system.
When the tournament kicked off Saturday, the temperature of the playing surface was reportedly 120 degrees, despite the fact that it was a pleasant 75 degrees that day in Edmonton. That’s because artificial turf, a combination of rubber and plastic, gets a lot hotter than natural grass. Natural grass, on average, stays 20-30 degrees cooler than its artificial counterpart.
This comes after a lawsuit challenging FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association’s decision to keep artificial turf for the tournament. Though the complaint, which was supported by high profile national players, was withdrawn in January 2015, concerns remain about the safety hazards of playing on turf and the gender discrimination that may have been behind the decision.
The turf temperature on Saturday was just two degrees below what’s considered “unsafe for sustained use by trained athletes,” according to a study cited by the Las Vegas Sun.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that playing on turf results in more fatigue and injuries than on natural grass.
This will be especially true when high turf temperatures could cause heat radiation to tire players more quickly than natural grass would. A 2006 survey found that 74 percent of NFL players felt artificial turf was responsible for more fatigue than grass. The turf will be the medical team’s primary concern in the tournament, Dr. Bojan Žorić told Sports Illustrated.
News of the artificial turf usage for the World Cup broke in 2012. U.S. forward Sydney Leroux called attention to the safety hazards of playing on turf by posting the following picture after one 2013 practice.
This is why soccer should be played on grass! pic.twitter.com/fsNGi27oRY
— Sydney Leroux Dwyer (@sydneyleroux)
Now, many players are worried about sustaining turf-related injuries in the tournament, taking extra precaution to avoid them during the games, one observer noted on Twitter.
Many of the players have their socks pulled up over their knees to minimize turf injuries. FIFA has a BILLION DOLLARS IN CASH. Ridiculous.
— John Green (@sportswithjohn)
Viewers and players alike see the downsides of playing soccer on turf. U.S. Men’s National Team defender Matt Besler told the Kansas City Star that soccer fans will notice a visible difference in play and viewing experience thanks to the turf. “Yeah, it will,” Besler said when asked if the turf surface would lessen his enjoyment of watching the tournament. “Anybody that’s watched a lot of soccer, you can very easily tell the difference between a game played on grass and a game played on turf. If you’re talking about the actual quality of soccer, it will have a negative impact.”
Before withdrawing their lawsuit earlier this year, players noted their concerns about the pitch. “Slide tackling on grass — you know, you get up, you shake the grass off, get the dirt off,” said United States National Team midfielder Heather O’Reilly. “On turf unfortunately, a little layer of your skin comes up with every slide tackle so you get turf burns… So it changes the game quite a bit.” O’Reilly told NPR she believes the decision to use turf a result of the difference in treatment of women’s sports versus men’s sports.
In September 2014, USWNT forward Abby Wambach, who spearheaded the lawsuit, told ThinkProgress the turf was “definitely a gender discrimination issue.” She noted that a men’s World Cup had never been played on turf, and the next two were slated to play on grass as well.
“So why would they make us play on turf?” Wambach said. “It’s because it’s convenient and it’s easy, so to speak, and that’s just not fair in so many ways.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece identified John Green as a sports reporter.
Rupali Srivastava is an intern with ThinkProgress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.