The Soccer Desk

Letting The Turf Versus Grass Debate Take Root

Laying the sand onto the synthetic pitch

By Sarah Gehrke and Linda Eriksson

Generally speaking, coverage of the turf versus grass issue at the 2015 World Cup in Canada has been predictable with Canadian publications defending turf while American publications are vilifying it.

The basic argument for turf is that Canada was the only country to bid to host the tournament, they bid venues that currently serve CFL teams, and turf is the only viable surface from both an economic and weather-based standpoint.

Meanwhile, the pro-grass side alleges that the use of turf over grass for a senior women’s World Cup is discriminatory and inherently unequal because a men’s World Cup would never be played on that type of surface.

More recently, the conversation has turned to a suggestion from players and some American media outlets to simply lay down sod over the artificial turf. Laying sod over turf is somewhat common for major European friendlies played in the United States. However, many Canadian journalists have rightly pointed out that the quality of the playing surface when this is done is often quite poor and even sometimes dangerous. This article from the New York Times details the poor playing surface after rootless sod was poorly laid over turf for a Gold Cup match between the United States and Canada at Ford Field in Detroit.

There is a third possible solution that has not been broadly discussed, which involves laying down sod and actually letting it grow over the artificial turf. This method was used in the 2013 UEFA European Women’s Championship (Women’s Euro 2013) to convert the playing surface in IFK Norrköping’s home arena Nya Parken from artificial turf to grass. The change was required to comply with a UEFA requirement that the final tournament of the Championship be played on grass.

Case Study – Turf to Grass Transformation for the Women’s Euro 2013

Photo courtesy of SIS Pitches

Photo courtesy of SIS Pitches

SIS Pitches worked with IFK Norrköping to turn an existing FIFA 2 star synthetic pitch into an international standard natural grass pitch. After the tournament they returned the synthetic pitch to FIFA 2 star standard.

This case study is significant because so many of the conditions are similar to what is expected in Canada 2015. Swedish and Canadian summers are fairly similar. Additionally, the grass surface at Nya Parken had to withstand multiple weeks of tournament play.

Niklas Wennermark, the manager at Nya Parken, provided a detailed description of the process he used to convert the field at his arena from synthetic turf to grass in this article.

Wennermark noted that his team had around two weeks between the last match played on artificial turf until the grass had to be ready for the tournament.

The first step was to protect the turf from the sand, dirt, and water by laying out a thick cover over the turf. Next, his team covered the new surface with 2,000 tons of sand which amounts to approximately 60 full trucks worth.

The sand was arranged to allow water to drain off. Wennermark also built a wooden frame around the entire field to prevent sand from shifting in the case of a sudden downpour. The sand layer was approximately 10 cm.

The work was not easy by any means and the team tasked with taking the grounds from turf to grass worked from 8 AM to 10 PM nearly every day.

The sod was transported by 24 trucks from a farm located on the border between Holland and Germany. Each roll was 1.20 meters wide and 15-18 meters long.

After a week and a half of work the grass had taken root, averaging four centimeters. The grass was cut by hand in order gain a finer cut and remove any additional stress from the surface.

Photo courtesy of SIS Pitches

Photo courtesy of SIS Pitches

Nya Parken played host to three group stage matches and one semifinal spanning 18 days.

Cecilie Sandvej, a member of the Danish national team during the Women’s Euro 2013 had this to say about the playing surface “It was actually my first time ever playing on a grass surface laid over turf when we played in Norrköping and I haven’t played on one since, but to be honest I did not see or feel any difference from that field to a normal grass field. I remember it being just as amazing as the rest of the fields we had played on in the other games during the Euros, so I have nothing negative to say about it.”

Ingrid Hjelmseth, goalkeeper for Norway, had effusive praise for the pitch saying “We played matches at three different venues during Euro 2013. In Kalmar and Norrköping (Nya Parken) the pitches were absolutely amazing. The grass at the Friends Arena was not close to as good.” Hjelmseth added that there weren’t even signs of deterioration around the six yard box.

Spanish midfielder Vero Boquete had similar words of praise for the field at Nya Parken saying, “The quality of the field was really good, it didn’t feel like it was laid over artificial turf. It felt like a normal grass field.” The Euros were Boquete’s first time playing on a grass field laid over artificial turf, but she commented that “I have played on a lot of grass fields and for me it was exactly the same.”

The tournament organizers, UEFA, had similar praise and the field was rated by UEFA as ‘one of the best pitches’ in the Championships.

After the tournament, the grass was carefully removed and given to a local club. After removing the protective covering, the artificial turf was found unharmed and ready for use only a week after the final game on grass.

Wennermark estimated the total cost of the conversion was approximately 3.5 million Swedish Crowns ($508,000). Göran Ekdahl, the vice chairman of IFK Norrköping, confirmed that cost and noted that the project could have been cheaper if they had chosen a turf without roots, but his team decided not to go with the cheaper option because there was a chance there was not enough time to let the cheaper rootless sod take root.

The 2015 World Cup in Canada will be played in six stadiums across the country including:

Using the transformation cost from Sweden as a benchmark, the cost to bring safe and high quality grass playing surfaces would be around $3 million. Considering that FIFA, a non-profit organization, currently has over a billion dollars in their bank account, it seems reasonable to provide a premiere playing surface for the most important women’s soccer event in the world.

Ekdahl declined to comment on whether he thought this method of transforming a turf field to grass would be viable at the six stadiums that will be used in Canada in 2015 as he was not familiar with the particular type of turf in each venue.

A condition for Canada being awarded the 2015 World Cup was that each of the venues install FIFA 2-star-approved turf, the same rating of the turf at Nya Parken. The full set of requirements for FIFA star certification of turf fields can be found on the FIFA website.

George Mullan, CEO of SIS pitches, said in an e-mail to the Soccer Desk that “it is possible to install natural grass turf on top of artificial turf for any football [soccer] game, however it depends on two points. One, is there suitable grass available that will survive in a stadium environment and is the grass strong enough to withstand football games and training sessions? Two, is there a company in Canada with the experience of installing grass in stadium environments?”

As the old adage goes, where there is a will (and some money), there is a way. Certainly given financial resources and considerable number of sod companies in Canada (and the United States) the turf transformation process used for Nya Parken provides an important blueprint and starting point to understanding there are reasonable, safe, and cost effective methods for using grass fields for the 2015 World Cup in Canada.

There are many fine details and important arguments on both sides of the turf debate for Canada 2015, but it is important to realize the options are not limited to turf or poorly laid sod over turf.

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  • Slicey

    This is a great article with the best example I’ve seen of converting turf to natural grass pitch. Extremely relevant comparison. Though I really wish the argument that Canada was the only bidder would not be brought up anymore. There are many reasons why this may have been the case. There are strategies and politics behind bids and the reason for the bid or lack thereof from other countries hasn’t been touched on in any article that I’ve read.

    • cynic

      And one of the main reason is that the UEFA countries was told not to apply, thus elimnating most contries that could have run one.

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  • kernel_thai

    Very well researched article. To me this isnt a about it being women vs men as much as it’s about setting the precedent. Then FIFA will have that in their back pocket if they need it.

  • Diane (DeeG)

    Excellent explanation of why and how this is doable. I’ve broken down events for each venue and there is more than ample time between the last scheduled event and the first games of WWC to do this. Thanks for showing this IS an option that’s not really being considered by the naysayers.

  • Steve Davis

    Great research. They did that in two weeks — we have a full year from right now before the WWC. Plenty of time. $3 million is chump change for FIFA. Probably still that much sitting around in unopened envelopes from past, ahem, various payments.

    • Dorv

      To be honest, they DON’T have a full year. Those stadiums aren’t sitting empty between now and the WWC kickoff. That being said, Diane above indicates that the schedule would still work.

      • Steve Davis

        Picking nits! My overall point is that they did this in WEEKS last time. They have far more time before next summer, which means time isn’t an excuse.

        Still can’t figure out why they won’t use either Saputo or BMO Field for any games. Is it just capacity issues? Or MLS conflicts? You’ve got two great natural grass fields right there.

        • Dorv

          You’re right, we’re agreeing on the main point here :)

          • BV

            i think what Steve meant is that they have a full year to source grass & sand suppliers, grow the proper type of grass, engineer a solution for each stadium, plan the conversion, etc.

  • nwslfan

    excellent article.