After the FIFA Executive Committee ratified the decision to use football turf pitches at Canada 2015, independent consultant Professor Eric Harrison travelled to Canada from 29 September to 8 October to assess all of the stadium and training pitches ahead of the event.
FIFA.com took the opportunity to speak with him about his analysis. In this interview, Harrison discusses the specifics and objectives of his inspection, the difference between 1- and 2-star pitches, studies regarding the risk of injury on football turf in comparison with natural turf, dealing with the sometimes negative perception of football turf, and the future of the surface in football.
What was your inspection about? What do you check exactly?
The purpose of any inspection, whether it be natural turf or football turf, is to assess the current condition of the fields. This obviously includes both the training venues and the actual competition fields. The performance of the practice fields needs to be similar to the performance of the actual competition fields as skills perfected in training can only transfer onto a competition field if they are performing similarly. Similar inspections take place on any natural turf facilities that are used in World Cup competitions.
The first part of the inspection is to check the quality of the installation process, the quality of the product, and the quality of the construction. These elements are all fundamental aspects of the FIFA Quality Programme for Football Turf that are independently verified by independent FIFA-approved test institutes. After a field is installed, it then becomes the responsibility of the owner of the field to ensure the surface is used correctly and is maintained correctly. The inspection therefore takes into consideration the level of usage and the type and frequency of the maintenance programme to ensure they are following the manufacturer's guidelines.
Would it be realistic to switch to natural turf?
In countries that have severe weather conditions like Canada, preparing natural turf is particularly challenging. During the long winter months, the natural turf is dormant and only can begin the recovery process after winter is over. The fields in these Northern latitudes are generally in poor condition after a long winter, with the natural turf appearing brown after many months without sunlight because they have been covered in snow. Furthermore, the effects of frost heave can leave many natural turf surfaces uneven, requiring extensive re-levelling. Often, it is not until July/August that the natural turf has recovered sufficiently to be deemed to be in optimum condition. This problem is compounded by municipality-owned facilities which are used as training facilities. The financial resources, the technical resources or the equipment/skill available at the municipality-owned training facilities to undertake the necessary repair and maintenance of natural turf training facilities are missing.
To date, over-laying artificial turf with natural turf in stadiums has not been successful due to the inability of the natural turf to form a stable surface. For the natural turf to be successful, the roots have to penetrate to form a stable surface. Where this has been attempted, the roots have not penetrated and the natural turf surface begins to slide on top of the artificial turf surface. This can be dangerous to players as unsure footing results in players being cautious of how they move and turn on the surface, and in the worst-case scenario it can result in slippage of the boot on the surface, leading to over-stretching of ankle ligaments and potential ACL injuries.
The majority of stadiums in Canada have accepted that only football turf is a credible surface to meet the demands of the weather and usage.
The Women’s World Cup will be played on 2-star pitches – what’s the difference to a 1-star pitch or any other football turf pitch?
The FIFA Quality Programme for Football Turf recognises the fact that football is played at a variety of levels, and the needs of different players vary significantly between the amateur and professional levels of the game. FIFA 2* has been developed more for the professional side of the game, where elite player performance is crucial, and FIFA 1* is directed more towards community usage, where high-intensity usage is of fundamental importance to the facility owners. There are obviously areas where the two overlap, and some FIFA 1* fields will give FIFA 2* performance if correctly maintained and not overly used.
What is the level of quality of the pitches used in some of the women’s leagues around the world?
There are significant variations between the quality of the fields available to female players around the world. I understand that only one FIFA 2* field is used in the professional league in the USA, for example. The quality of the other fields, to my knowledge, has not been independently verified and it may well be that some of these fields would not even pass a FIFA 1* performance test. Given the background of players competing on low quality artificial turf fields, it is not surprising that there are reservations. A poorer quality artificial grass field, just like a poorer quality natural turf field, cannot be the optimum surface on which to compete and for the players to demonstrate their skills.
There are a lot of questions and concerns regarding injuries. What is your opinion on that? What studies have been conducted and what are some of the conclusions?
As guardians of the world of football, FIFA takes a serious stance on the wellbeing of players. Through the independent body F-MARC, FIFA has instigated studies into the injury rates at FIFA competitions and at grassroots level on football turf, and then compared them to injury rates on natural turf. UEFA also undertook a similar study in elite men’s and women’s football in European leagues. All these studies have been independently verified and peer-reviewed for their accuracy. The conclusions were that, in general, the injury rates are similar between quality natural turf and FIFA 1* and 2* fields. In some instances, the injuries recorded were lower on football turf but, in the scientific jargon used, were deemed to be statistically the same.
All these studies have been published in leading medical journals and can be read by any individual who so wishes. In any contact sport there is always the potential for injury and on any given day an injury can occur on any surface. The point is that it is necessary to look at many games, and these studies both looked at in excess of thousands of hours of play to have sufficient information to see if a trend was taking place. It requires many thousands of playing hours to assess such an effect rather than draw an erroneous conclusion from a single match or event.
The conclusion was that the game at elite level was essentially the same on both football turf and natural turf.
What about the game characteristics playing on natural turf compared to football turf? What studies or tests have been done? How much of it would you say comes down to perception?
The FIFA Quality Programme began by asking one simple question – why is natural turf so good for the game of football and how could this be replicated in an artificial turf programme? Quite simply, the vast majority of countries around the world find it difficult, if not impossible, to provide the number of natural turf facilities necessary for their players. This can be due to a variety of reasons including climate, the skills of groundskeepers, the budgets available for equipment and staff, and intensity of usage. The programme was thus begun to develop the best alternative to natural turf, bearing in mind at all times that the performance of natural turf in ideal conditions has always been and continues to be the benchmark against which football turf is compared.
Natural turf has specific properties that, when in perfect condition, make it an excellent surface for football. To understand this, the FIFA Quality Programme looked specifically at the performance of natural turf surfaces and set parameters for football turf to mimic the performance of quality natural turf surfaces. In the FQP, there are many tests that link not only to the performance of the field from a playing perspective but also to the long-term performance of the field. From a playing perspective, how the ball interacts with the surface is measured by the rebound from the surface, the speed of the surface by measuring ball roll, and how the ball interacts with the surface when fired at an oblique angle. The ball should not bounce too high or too low, should not be too fast or too slow, and a ball hit at an angle should not rebound steeply, nor should it skid quickly off the surface. The player interaction tests include characteristics such as the surface not being too hard or too soft, plus it should not deform too much as it will lead to over-stretching of ligaments. Players need to have sufficient “grip” on the surface to allow for acceleration and deceleration, and players need to change direction and not put too much stress on knee and ankle joints. The surface needs to withstand the climates it will be exposed to and wear well. The parameters for all of the player and ball responses are based on natural turf in "ideal condition”.
The conclusion was that the game at elite level was essentially the same on both football turf and natural turf. Players have also had their senses limited by blindfolds, as well as sound and smell deprivation, and they found the surfaces to be similar. However, in a large-scale independent study instigated by FIFA, players in general felt that they would prefer to play on natural turf in good condition but would prefer to play on a quality artificial turf pitch rather than a lesser quality natural turf pitch. Interestingly, in this study, although a majority of the players had never encountered a FIFA 2* field or in most cases artificial turf in their career, they still expressed a preference for natural turf. The implication being that there is an almost automatic bias against artificial turf from players even before they have tried out the surface. Given this fact, it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that for many players, this negative perception contributes to their distrust of artificial turf when coupled with experiencing poor quality artificial turf. Some of the respondents had played on 2nd generation artificial turf as youth academy players, so it is understandable that there is a strong preference for natural turf and some reservations about playing on artificial turf.
Do you think it is a good decision to play the Women’s World Cup on football turf? Would you propose the same for the men?
Football turf in good condition is a good footballing surface, as is good quality natural turf. In countries like Canada, where most of the country experiences extremely harsh winters, preparing high quality natural turf venues is a challenge. This is made all the more difficult when training fields are added to the list of fields to be prepared. A late winter would bring incredible pressure to bear on preparing such grounds for the Women’s World Cup. The majority of stadiums in Canada have accepted that only football turf is a credible surface to meet the demands of the weather and usage to which they wish to subject the fields. Canada has proven, time and again, to be a supporter of FIFA events, with the U-20s for both men and women having already been played in front of packed stadiums. The Canadian enthusiasm for these events was truly awe-inspiring and I anticipate that they will once again enthusiastically embrace the Women’s World Cup in a manner that few nations around the world do. Football turf is an integral part of that strategy. Football turf is a credible alternative to natural turf. If there was a climatic condition that warranted its usage, I would recommend it for the men's World Cup as it is currently already used in World Cup qualifiers, Champions League games and many leading football leagues. If it suffices for this elite level then it is obviously suitable for elite football competition.
Is football turf the way of the future?
As I have already said, football turf is a credible alternative, but if a good quality natural turf surface exists then embrace it, use it, enjoy it. However, if it is not possible to grow and maintain good quality natural turf for whatever reason, then football turf is a good alternative and its increased usage verifies this position.