Except for a carpet-smooth look and a pleasant shade of green, there was nothing apparently remarkable about the grass at Helsinki’s Töölö stadium. But the playing surface for ten matches – including the Final - of the FIFA U-17 World Championship Finland 2003 was, in fact, artificial. We sought the opinion of players and coaches to an experiment that could prove to be one of the most significant in the history of the beautiful game.
It was the first time a surface other than natural grass had been used at a FIFA finals tournament. But with football’s ongoing popularity only checked in some countries by extreme weather conditions, Finland 2003 was seen as the ideal location and the perfect opportunity to try out the synthetic turf and assess its performance.
The Finnish capital’s 11,000-seat chocolate-box Töölö stadium – a ground that might well have remained empty for large chunks of the year - was chosen as the physical laboratory for the test. The latest of some 20 artificial pitches that have been either fully or partly financed by FIFA’s Goal Programme welcomed Mexico, Colombia, China and hosts Finland to its attractive surroundings for the group stage.
On their own turf
“I believe this is the solution for the future of football in Finland,” said Finland coach Jyrki Heliskoski. “With our long, hard winters, it could extend our season by two or three months and that could be invaluable for Finnish football.”
“We started to play in May and had about 25 training sessions and 12 friendlies,” added the veteran and much-respected coach. “The feedback from the boys was not great at first. One third had negative feelings, a third’s comments were positive, while the final third were neutral. But now, players are either neutral or positive.”
A purist’s perspective
Those views were certainly shared by Colombia’s players. After finishing top of Group A, the South Americans were the country that played most matches (5) on the artificial turf. Following a draw with Mexico, wins against China PR, Finland 9-1 and Costa Rica in the quarter-finals, Colombia finally bowed out much further afield on Tampere’s natural grass in their best ever finish at a FIFA finals (fourth). P>Colombia’s impressive number 11 José Otalvaro admitted the grass grew on him with each match.
“It was tough to get used to at first…we made all our preparation on natural grass but we got better with each game,” the teenager said.
His team trainer Rodrigo Larrahondo was sympathetic to the needs of countries who do not have the luxury of Colombia’s climes: “We have a privileged geographical and climatic situation, which allows natural grass all the time but we understand this is not the case for other countries in the world...making these surfaces necessary.”
Wet turf or dry turf?
Coach Humberto Grondona – whose Mexican side played three matches in Töölö – expressed some concerns following the opening clash with Colombia.
“This was the first game we played on the turf and it was quite wet, so the ball moved very quickly,” he said following the only goalless draw of the finals. “I think it took a while for the team to adjust.”
Mexico went on to qualify for the knockout stage before being defeated, like Colombia, off the artificial turf in Lahti in the quarter-finals by Argentina.
But it was Spain who seemed to perform on the surface best. After their spectacular 3-2 golden-goal semi-final victory against Argentina, coach Juan Santisteban praised the pitch’s performance – its eighth match in two weeks.
“The grass is excellent,” he remarked. “In Spain we also suffer from cold and wet conditions that affect the quality of grass. I think it’s something that is definitely necessary.”
A significant fear heading into Finland 2003 was the potential for injuries caused by the unfamiliar surface. These and other matters were discussed at a meeting of players, coaches, referees, officials and doctors in Helsinki on 24 August. But studied against the FIFA U-17 World Championship Trinidad & Tobago 2001, the amount of injuries was comparable. And only seven were reported from Helsinki – all of which were run-of-the-mill football-related problems.
Ultimately, 31 of the tournament’s record-equalling 117 goals were scored on the artificial grass in a FIFA competition many observers believe to be one of the most exciting in recent times.
And though debate will continue over the benefits and drawbacks of using artificial pitches, particularly in high-profile matches, if Finland 2003 is anything to go by, mud-scrapers at the tunnel entrance may not be such a familiar image in the future.