Women's Soccer Stars Sue Over Artificial Turf Plan At World Cup

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Women's World Cup soccer players are suing FIFA over the proposed use of artificual turf fields at the 2015 World Cup. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Women's World Cup soccer players are suing FIFA over the proposed use of artificual turf fields at the 2015 World Cup. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

"If a cow can't eat it, I don't want to play on it."

Former MLB player Dick Allen is alleged to have said that. Soccer players from around the world scheduled to play in the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup would agree with him. Among them is Heather O'Reilly, a midfielder on the U.S. National Team.

"Turf just changes the game quite a bit," she said. "The actual quality of soccer is changed. More importantly is sort of an injury concern. And, as you can imagine, slide tackling on turf — you can't just get up and wipe off dirt and grass. You're now talking about wiping off a layer of skin. A lot of male players even refuse to play on artificial turf, even for just friendly matches. And this is the World Cup we're talking about."

O'Reilly and a collection of other players from around the world have brought a lawsuit against the organizers of that World Cup in Canada because the venues for those games feature artificial turf.

Bill Littlefield spoke with Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl, who's been following the story.

BL: Before we get to the details of the lawsuit, tell me a little bit about the differences between soccer played on grass and soccer played on artificial turf.

[sidebar title="Wahl On Landon Donovan" width="630" align="right"]SI's Grant Wahl recently profiled American soccer star Landon Donovan, who's preparing for retirement.[/sidebar]GW: There's a pretty distinct difference, and it's bigger than we see in other sports in part because the ball is being played on the ground so much in soccer. The ball rolls differently. There's less resistance than on a natural grass field.

Players, men's and women's, over the years have told me that they prefer playing on grass, that they're more hesitant to do diving headers on artificial turf surfaces. And when it rains, especially, artificial turf can be tough to watch games on because the ball skids so much. The body has a harder time recovering after the pounding it takes playing on artificial turf surfaces, even the newer surfaces. And in a tournament that's a month long, where the games come fast and furious, that's going to affect the quality of the play.

BL: What are the players asking for in their lawsuit against FIFA?

They think it's a gender-discrimination issue -- that the men's World Cup would never, ever be played on artificial turf.

Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated

BL: Why did FIFA decide to stage this on artificial turf? I mean, even friendlies in the men's game require stadiums to put grass over the field. 

[sidebar title="Paraguayan Women Struggle For Soccer Acceptance" width="630" align="right"]Female soccer players face cultural barriers at home in Paraguay even as their teams are playing on the international stage.[/sidebar]GW: Well, only two bids took place for this women's World Cup to host it — from Canada and from Zimbabwe, which pulled out, leaving Canada as the only option. And the Canadian bid from the start proposed artificial turf fields. Year-round in Canada, you can sort of understand why maybe in the winter it's tough to have a natural grass surface for the stadiums there.

It's certainly possible for FIFA next year to install rooted grass surfaces over the artificial turf. It would cost a little money, but not a ton, especially compared to the $2 billion FIFA has in reserve. And it's certainly possible to have a better-quality, temporary grass surface, even the kind that get rolled down over artificial turf a day or two before the event, like we often see for exhibition games in the U.S.

BL: The women bringing this lawsuit have said they do not intend to boycott the World Cup. Without that leverage, what's the likelihood that they'll get to play on grass?

GW: Well, I'm not a legal expert, Bill, so I can't say with 100 percent certainty how the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal will decide here, but I have spoken to some legal experts who think that the women have a very good chance of winning this case as a gender-discrimination issue, citing the fact that the Canadian men's team would only play World Cup qualifiers on natural grass and the Canadian Soccer Association granted that to them. CSA is one of the co-hosts of this event along with FIFA.

So there's certainly some examples of men's soccer getting natural grass in Canada, and we know now that women's soccer, they don't want to use natural grass for their showpiece event.

More OAG Soccer Coverage: 

This segment aired on October 4, 2014.


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