2015 Women’s World Cup on Artificial Turf: Framing the Arguments

Tatjana Haenni, FIFA’s head of women’s competitions has officially stated that the Women’s World Cup to be held in Canada in the summer of next year will continue forward as planned on artificial surfaces and that no alternative plan is being considered.  Haenni said this in an interview in Ottowa on Tuesday as she was in Canada as part of a FIFA delegation on a tournament inspection tour ahead of next summer.

Accompanying Haenni and the delegation is an independent consultant retained by FIFA to examine and assess the condition of the six artificial playing surface fields in the host cities. Haenni stated,

“The quality of the turf is of concern to many people. As you know there’s different types of turf. There’s older ones, newer ones, and you can categorize them based on some testing. And I think for all of us, including the NOC (National Organization Committee) the Canadian Soccer Association, it will be helpful if we can say — proven let’s say by an independent company — what kind of turf and quality it is.”

The statement obviously acknowledges the grievances made publicly about hosting the entire tournament on artificial turf but does not mention specifically the threat of lawsuit by 40 professional players taking part in the tournament represented by two Canadian based law firms and one US based firm.  According to a document addressed to FIFA President Sepp Blatter, Victor Montagliani and Peter Montopoli, both from the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), FIFA had until September 26th to respond to requests for dialogue on the playing surface or face a lawsuit in Canadian court claiming human rights violations.

The fundamental argument put forth is that playing on artificial turf is discrimination based on gender by virtue of the fact that there has never been a previous Women’s World Cup hosted on artificial turf and corresponding Men’s tournaments never have and never would be played on artificial turf. The following is an excerpt from their draft:

“…injures an elite group of female athletes in three significant ways: (1) by forcing them to compete on a surface that fundamentally alters the way the game is played, (2) by subjecting them to unique and serious risks of injury, and (3) by devaluing their dignity, state of mind and self-respect as a result of requiring them to play on a second-class surface before tens of thousands of stadium spectators and a global broadcast audience.”

The players and their lawyers argue this violates Section 1 of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Three primary facts stated in the legal draft are that there are specific injury concerns related to artificial surfaces, with documentation of some injuries from similar playing surfaces, that artificial turf fundamentally alters the way the game is played, and that FIFA initiated a survey of elite female players on “preferences for turf or grass” indicating that it was determining whether to use artificial turf for the tournament and that despite 77% indicating that all major tournament games should be played on grass instead of turf and 80% indicating that the nature of the way they play changes when playing on artificial turf, FIFA and CSA still went ahead with the use of the surfaces for the 2015 tournament.

These are three among a significant number of other points made but they represent three major points.

In the “Legal Violations” section of the draft it is noted that CSA went ahead with their bid knowing that 5 of 7 proposed host cities had artificial playing surfaces with a 6th under construction, and that both FIFA and CSA are both liable and responsible for discriminatory decisions leading to the hosting of the tournament on artificial turf, which up to that point in the draft has sufficient argument for artificial turf being an “inferior surface”.

This, despite any salient points made so far, is where a legal response from FIFA seems most likely to occur.

The fact is that artificial surfaces, according to FIFA’s Laws of the Game2015 Women’s World Cup Regulations and 2014 Men’s World Cup Regulations are allowed as playing surfaces regardless of player preference.

Countering the assertion of the prevalence of injury and altered play, FIFA requires that all artificial surfaces meet “FIFA Quality Concept for Football Turf” which breaks down the process of obtaining a FIFA RECOMMENDED 2 STAR quality rating, the highest possible rating obtainable from FIFA, of which all 6 host city playing surfaces have received.  This highlights the importance of the independent consultant on the inspection tour.  Potential for injury, and impact on playing the game and game performance are all criteria tested for.

Additionally, while CSA proposes host cities and FIFA approves them, indicating a dual liability in the decision to use artificial turf, both organizations are inherently subject to venues and bids made available to them.

Canada was really the only country that bid for hosting the 2015 Women’s World Cup.  Zimbabwe did as well but their economic and political instability all but ruled themselves out.  On top of that, Toronto, arguably a top World Cup venue candidate with a natural grass field, did not bid as a host city because they will host the 2015 Pan-American games. Other cities reportedly didn’t bid because the potential cost would be too high, and so Canada’s host city bids were subject to whichever cities submitted.

From there they proposed to FIFA, whose previous alternative to Canada was only Zimbabwe.  This shows an alternative view that lacks a pattern of discriminatory behavior.

In the end, despite artificial surfaces being approved for international competition by FIFA for both men and women it cannot be argued that performance on artificial surfaces is completely comparable to natural grass.

Additionally, while every Men’s World Cup has had natural grass fields, the 1994 World Cup in the United States had FIFA actually force venues to install grass fields on the proposed host cities with artificial surfaces.  Combine this with the fact that the legal draft had recommendations for each venue which included temporary & permanent field surface replacement, and in some cases alternative venues.

These points, combined with negative patterns of behavior in FIFA and CSA showing at the very least a lack of respect towards women and at the most outright discriminatory behavior, could prove to be a very difficult obstacle for FIFA and CSA hosting this tournament.

The legal case outlined in the document whose submission was threatened argues that the tournament would be held in “inferior, dangerous, and discriminatory conditions.”  The threat is serious, the opposition is serious, and FIFA seems serious about walking in a different direction. If the document is to be believed then the legal draft is no longer a draft, but rather a submitted suit, the outcome of which does not appear to be smooth.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.