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Pique, Giovinco, Ibra file 'class action suit' over insufficient grounds

Wednesday 29th August 2018

Major League Soccer plays a summer schedule, UEFA in the winter but players on either side of the North Atlantic share a common aversion to artificial turf. Not only do they prefer a natural surface, they expect groundskeepers to maintain their organic patches in pristine condition. The controversy resurfaced this weekend when three major stars spoke out.

Barcelona complained to the league after playing against Real Vallodolid on a damaged surface at the Estadio Jose Zorilla. Defender Gerard Pique made his feelings known.

If [the league] want to sell the product outside of Spain and take games to the United States, they need to look at what is going on here first. [The pitch] was a disgrace. It wasn't fit for playing football on and there was a risk of injury for the players. I hope that those in charge fix it because it's shameful. It's deplorable.

As a Spanish citizen, Pique wasn’t eligible to vote for Hillary Clinton, but his feelings on the matter weren’t unique. Teammate Sergio Busquets supported his view.

It's lamentable that the best league in the world is played in these conditions.

La Liga takes such complaints seriously. President Javier Tebas promised action while his Valladolid counterpart accepted responsibility. Carlos Suarez promised to make repairs and agreed to accept any punishment forthcoming.

In Canada, Toronto FC star Sebastian Giovinco complained about the surface at his home BMO Field after leaving the 401 Derby against Montreal Impact.

[Side note: The derby’s name derives from the highway connecting the country’s two biggest cities which, unlike the A580 between Liverpool and Manchester, doesn’t have a catchy nickname like the East Lancs Road.]

Giovinco scored a brace before tweaking a pre-existing groin condition in the 72nd minute. Like Pique, he was vocal in his dissatisfaction.

We continue to put sand on the grass and the Argos plays, TFC 2 plays, everybody play on this field and then every game we lose a player. This is not possible.

Unlike Mr Shakira and FCB, Giovinco and TFC’s complaints will fall on deaf ears. MLS prefers every team in the division to play on its own “soccer-specific stadium” but lacks the influence to enforce the mandate.

 When it came into the league Toronto’s BMO Field met the standard but the struggling franchise was purchased by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, who also own the CFL’s Argonauts. MLSE moved the Argos from the oversized Rogers Centre to BMO Field to cut costs.

Playing gridiron football on a soccer pitch has the same effect as playing rugby. The groundskeeping crew adds sand to firm up the turf but the improvement is marginal. Footing is inconsistent and hazardous. BMO Field now resembles Rodney Parade where Tottenham Hotspur struggled mightily against Newport County in last season’s FA Cup.

The difference is the FA Cup away leg was a one-off proposition. The MLS Cup holders must play on a progressively degraded surface throughout their campaign once the CFL season begins in June. In addition to Giovinco’s nagging groin, several starters including Jose Altidore, Victor Vazquez, Drew Moor and Justin Morrow lost or are losing time to injuries, critically hindering the Reds title defence.

In addition to TFC, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, New England, Minnesota and Atlanta all play in stadia with artificial turf. In a preseason survey, 63% of MLS players disapproved of turf pitches. Four of the eight most despised grounds among MLS players in the same survey contained artificial grass.

Houston coach Wilmer Cabrera believes natural grass with soil underneath is more forgiving on joints and muscles than synthetic fibres and concrete.

Pounding on [an artificial] surface it’s gonna get you more tired, the muscles are going to suffer a little bit more and the joints, but we don’t make any kind of excuses.

In the same interview, the Colombian mentioned travelling thousands of miles for matches and playing in extreme weather conditions, covering all the excuses he won’t make, but no less a player than Zlatan Ibrahimovic shares his opinion on the increased risk of injury on artificial surfaces.

By playing on turf, I risk to get damage. I don't say I will get injured; I don't know. I could get injured also in normal games but the consequence is everywhere. The risk is everywhere. The risk is higher on the turf and I tried to play on the turf in Portland and I felt very bad. With all the respect for turf, for Portland and the stadium, which was a fantastic atmosphere, if I could play I would play every single second. But it's not about that I don't want to play, it's about me. I don't want to take the risk to get damaged if it's not life or death.

But if it's the playoff and we go there, I will go there and I will destroy them. If I get injured, fuck it, I get injured. I will take the risk because we are in a different situation.

To be fair to Portland, Providence Park uses an advanced system designed to be shock absorbent while playing as close to real grass as possible. The club also limits gridiron football use and bans events that wear out the field too soon, including monster truck shows. Even with careful usage, the club is committed to replacing the turf every two years. They just don’t want anyone to tell Zlatan, lest he shows up for regular season matches.

There’ve been past controversies. Players sued FIFA in advance of the 2015 World Cup in Canada because most host venues featured artificial turf. Were it the men’s tournament rather than the women’s, legal action wouldn’t have been necessary. Vancouver’s decision to withdraw as a candidate for the 2026 men’s World Cup largely due to the expense involved in converting to a natural surface with proper drainage proves the fact. In contrast, the US women who appealed to a human rights tribunal in Ontario eventually elected to play and risk their careers on BC Place’s synthetic surface in 2015.

For the moment, the money invested in male players keeps most clubs from venturing beyond synthetic/natural blends in their stadiums. There are a few top leagues where artificial surfaces exist, however. The Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow which hosted the World Cup final was converted from artificial turf. No club team calls it home at the moment, though. Wolfsburg’s Volkswagen Arena is an indoor venue with a translucent roof designed to allow the grass in its hybrid turf to grow. A few Liga MX clubs play on artificial turf.

The same conservative mindset that still delays VAR’s implementation keeps the few innovators from becoming a movement. Major League Baseball endured a rush to build cheap artificial turf stadiums in the 1960s and 70s, beginning with the famous Astrodome in Houston [lo siento, Senor Cabrera] and followed by a seemingly endless procession of cookie-cutter grounds. The impact was so negative, clubs soon moved to build new stadiums, each with its own unique architecture and dimensions, all featuring natural grass.

While video review is a feature the game requires, synthetic lawns are not. Even when the man-made variety is more durable, cost-effective, and true to football’s physics, it detracts from the experience. When you leave a concrete city behind to enter a ground and gaze upon a proper pitch with the sprinklers readying the surface for play, you’re removed completely from life’s troubles. Ibra says it best. I’ll give him the last word.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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