The beauty of football, futbol, soccer or whatever you like to call it is you can play it anywhere- Indoor, outdoor, at the beach or in the middle of a park with sweaters for goalposts. However, when being played at the highest level, to get the best performance the beautiful game must be played on the best surface possible. In most cases this means grass or an artificial grass. But which is best? And does it matter?
Currently none of the twenty teams in the UK’s Premier League play on a fully synthetic surface. The artificial pitch was banned from League football in England in 1988 due to complaints they caused injuries and that the quality of football played on them was poor. Recently some lower league teams have expressed interest in reintroducing an artificial pitch with a view to save on costs and generate revenue. For now there are no plans to reverse the ban and it seems unlikely. Having said that there are hybrid pitches permitted and used by at least 20 teams throughout the English league, including the Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal FC and Old Trafford, home of Manchester United. Arsenal uses a pitch that consists of natural grass that is intertwined with artificial fibres and Manchester United use a material containing synthetic fibres as a base for their 100% natural grass pitch. Both products are designed to reinforce the root system and promote stability.
There is an argument that teams should all play on the same surface type to maintain a league standard and promote fairness- a level playing field if you will. Some might argue it’s already fair as a result of the home and away game system which ensures any advantage is evened out over the two legs.
It is widely accepted that a home team has the advantage on their own surface but a team that plays on an artificial home surface arguably has an even greater advantage over a team that is more accustomed to grass. The home side would be more familiar with the different speed of play as well as any unpredictable and irregular bounces that are known to occur and the visiting side may take time to adjust.
Those who follow the Women’s Professional Soccer League in America, or had been, will know the teams played on both grass and artificial turf. Atlanta Beat and Sky Blue FC played their home fixtures on grass and the Boston Breakers, Philadelphia Independence and Western New York Flash played on artificial turf. Atlanta is fortunate to have a women’s soccer specific stadium and they chose to install a grass playing field. WNY Flash, the only team not affiliated with a university, also played at a soccer specific stadium but they have a synthetic pitch that is shared by other local sports teams. The remaining WPS teams played at university owned facilities on pitches that are used by other sports. For this reason in most cases, Sky Blue FC excluded, it seems to make financial sense to have synthetic turf in order to cope with the wear and tear of a high turnover of games. In some cases this option can devalue the sport visually. From a spectators view, the extra markings of the lacrosse, field hockey or American football lines can be distracting. I’m sure it’s less of a problem for the players but it’s far from ideal.
So then, if these teams could all afford their own purpose built venues what surface would they choose? There is a lot to consider. Grass requires a lot of maintenance not to mention difficulties contending with the weather all of which can prove costly in a league that is yet to prove itself as financially stable. Artificial turf does require maintenance but nowhere near as much and it can arguably cope with the elements better than the natural stuff. Then there is the option of using a hybrid/combo style pitch similar to the above mentioned Arsenal and Manchester United. Perhaps an element of synthetic material mixed with pure natural grass is the perfect combination, the best of both worlds.
But what do the players themselves think? In 2007 David Beckham was asked what he would change about MLS, he had this to say: “There is one major thing that should actually change. I don’t know whether I am being too controversial, but I think the fact that there are four or five teams with FieldTurf. As professional athletes, you can’t play a game like soccer on that sort of field. The reaction of players and what it does to your body, as a soccer player, you [need] two or three days off for that. Every game, every team should have grass, without a doubt. You can’t ask any athlete to perform at a high level on the FieldTurf.”¹
Speaking to Pitchside Report after the Women’s World Cup in 2011, USA national team player Heather O’Reilly had this to say “I personally prefer to play on grass. As a soccer player there is not a better feeling than playing on a perfect grass pitch. The fields in Germany were just impeccable and fantastic to play on. I think some players who have had, specially, knee and ankle injuries have some more difficulty playing on turf. I would of course choose a grass field over turf. You know I don’t mind a good turf field. I think it’s nice to play on a flat surface. You know some grass fields aren’t all that flat. You want a flat surface and ideally that’s grass but yeah as long as there is a ball, a goal and a decently flat surface I’m pretty happy.”
There is extensive and interesting research into the grass versus turf argument that takes into account injury rates, cost and the environmental impact to name a few but there are too many to talk about in detail here. For me it’s simple, football was invented to be played on grass… the natural kind.
¹ “Beckham Speaks” Washington Post, August 8th 2007.
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