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Turf war of words bogged down in semantics: FIFA willing to talk but on its terms

12/03/2014 05:55 EST | Updated 02/02/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - The war over words over artificial turf at the Women's World Cup has become bogged down in semantics ahead of Saturday's draw in Ottawa.

And that is frustrating the legal team representing a rebel faction of players as it tries to chip away at the monolithic world governing body of soccer.

While a legal challenge snakes it way through the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, lawyers for the players have gone down a number of avenues to keep their storyline front and centre.

Jerome Valcke, FIFA's secretary-general, seemingly opened up a new path in an Oct. 29 fifa.com article when he said: "We will again welcome open dialogue at the official draw on Dec. 6 in Ottawa."

But with no players expected to be present at the draw other than Canadian captain Christine Sinclair, it appears that dialogue looks to be very limited.

Most players outside North America are in season with their clubs while the U.S., China and Brazil are in Brazil for a tournament. And Sinclair, like the other Canadian players who answer to the host Canadian Soccer Association, has been deliberately kept out of the fray.

Hampton Dellinger, the lead lawyer for the women, jumped on Valcke's "open dialogue" comment and invited the FIFA executive to participate in a conference call around the draft with American Abby Wambach, Germany's Nadine Angerer, Spain's Veronica Boquete, and Brazil's Marta.

Valcke declined the offer, telling Dellinger he was unable to meet during the time requested. But he said team representatives and FIFA officials would meet at the draw.

"FIFA welcomes continued dialogue with players through the competent bodies within FIFA, including the Committee for Women's Football and the FIFA Women's World Cup, wherein female player's interests are duly represented," he said in his response.

Valcke will be at the draw and, according to the Oct. 29 article, is willing to talk — thought it seems on his terms.

"Dialogue with the participating teams and, naturally, the players is very important to us and we keep open channels of communication with all parties before, during and after the event ... I, personally, will attend (the draw) alongside our pitch expert and medical teams, and I am sure that in this way we will be able to address all concerns and doubts so that all of the participating teams can focus on their preparation for the biggest event in women’s football," he was quoted in the Oct. 29 article.

A FIFA spokesperson reiterated that via email.

"The FIFA general-secretary is already in contact with players and members associations and will meet with all the team representatives present during his stay on the occasion of the official draw."

Valcke's rejection drew an immediate, incendiary response from Dellinger.

"Mr. Valcke, please stop the spin doctoring and shoot the players (and the press and public) straight: will you or will you not speak DIRECTLY with Nadine Angerer, Abby Wambach, and other protesting players about their 'concerns and doubts' regarding the tournament?" wrote Dellinger.

"Awaiting your response are the 2013 World Player of the Year (Angerer), the 2012 World Player of the Year (Wambach), the 2006-10 World Player of the Year (Marta), Australia's Samantha Kerr, Spain's Veronica Boquete, and the rest of the now 80-member-plus player coalition.

"Together, they feel the actions of FIFA and CSA (Canadian Soccer Association) are wrong and unlawful. But they also believe, as do I, that there is time to make all aspects of the upcoming Women's World Cup truly world-class."

The women's legal complaint argues that playing their showcase tournament on artificial turf is tantamount to discrimination because the men play their World Cup on grass.

In recent weeks, lawyers for the women have also pointed the finger at tournament prize money and the use of goal-line technology as differences between the men's and women's events in a bid to bolster their different gender, different treatment argument.

While lawyers for the women have been active on legal offence, FIFA has offered a minimal defence — usually via its website.

FIFA argues that playing on turf is within the laws of the game, provided it meets set standards, and that artificial turf makes sense for the Canadian climate. And Valcke has said a men's World Cup on artificial turf could come "sooner rather than later."

FIFA says there is no decision yet on the use of goal-line technology at the Canadian event. Prize money for the 2015 tournament is expected to be announced some time after the FIFA Executive Committee meeting in mid-December.

The 32-team men's tournament in Brazil this summer featured total prize money of US$476 million. The total purse of the 16-country women's tournament in 2011 was $7.6 million.

The 2015 Women's World Cup, which features 24 teams, runs June 6 to July 5 in Moncton, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver.

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