TORONTO - FIFA has launched the latest salvo in defence of artificial turf at the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada.
In an article on FIFA.com, FIFA consultant Eric Harrison says artificial turf is a "credible alternative" to natural turf.
And Harrison says artificial turf makes sense for Canada's climate.
"In countries like Canada, where most of the country experiences extremely harsh winters, preparing high quality natural turf venues is a challenge ... A late winter would bring incredible pressure to bear on preparing such grounds for the Women’s World Cup," he said.
"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."
FIFA rules permit the use of artificial turf provided it meets certain standards.
The world governing body of soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association, in its role as the tournament's national organizing committee, have been forced on the defensive over the World Cup playing surface via a lawsuit filed by a group of elite female players.
The complaint is currently before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which is mulling over a request from the women for an expedited hearing.
Harrison, described by FIFA as an "independent consultant," was part of the recent FIFA inspection tour that visited World Cup venues in Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver.
In the interview, Harrison touches on a major platform of the women's complaint, that they are being discriminated against since the men's World Cup has always taken place on grass.
"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." Harrison said. "If it suffices for this elite level then it is obviously suitable for elite football competition."
Hampton Dellinger, lawyer for the players' group, dismissed Harrison's arguments.
"Mr. Harrison's longstanding ties to FIFA undercut any claim that he is independent," Dellinger said in a statement Friday. "And his refusal to acknowledge the problems with plastic pitches in matches such as Andorra-Wales or the success of premier temporary grass fields at Women's Euro 2013 suggest he's not the 'expert' FIFA claims him to be.
"For anyone to suggest that the men's World Cup would be played on fields likened to concrete such as B.C. Place is laughable."
The World Cup final is scheduled for B.C. Place.
The women want temporary grass surfaces installed, or, where available, have games moved to venues with real grass.
Harrison also says laying a temporary grass surface over turf has not been successful "due to the inability of the natural turf to form a stable 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 overstretching of ankle ligaments and potential ACL injuries."
While FIFA permits play on sanctioned turf, grass remains players' preferred surface. Harrison seemed to touch on that in a indirect way.
"Football turf is a credible alternative, but if a good quality natural turf surface exists then embrace it, use it, enjoy it," Harrison concluded. "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."
The CSA has retained a consultant of its own to test the World Cup playing surfaces to determine they meet FIFA standards. Those results are expected in early 2015.
FIFA's executive committee has already ratified the decision to use artificial turf pitches at the tournament.
Tatjana Haenni, FIFA's deputy director of the competitions division and head of women's competitions, delivered FIFA's position in person during the recent inspection trip when she said there was no Plan B.
Harrison argues that preparing natural grass is "particularly challenging" in countries like Canada that have severe weather conditions.
"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 relevelling. Often, it is not until July/August that the natural turf has recovered sufficiently to be deemed to be in optimum condition."
BMO Field in Toronto was just such a case this year after a long winter.
Harrison took aim at another player argument, citing studies which concluded "that the game at elite level was essentially the same on both football turf and natural turf.
Harrison studied polymer science at Liverpool University and has a PhD from Loughborough University. He has served as chairman of the European Standards Committee on Sports Surfaces.
The 24-team Women's World Cup runs June 6 through July 7.
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