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Artificial turf makes modest inroad into World Cup soccer

July 6, 2010  - By

The global sports delirium that unfolds for one month every four years begins Friday, June 11. The 2010 FIFA World Cup begins in South Africa and will be followed via television and radio by billions around the world. This is the first time an African nation is hosting the tournament, which involves teams from 32 nations. And again like 18 previous Cups, the action at this year’s spectacle will unfold on grass – mostly.

Two of the 10 South African venues (five new stadiums were built for the tournament) hosting the World Cup matches will feature artificial turf for the first time. Well, let’s more accurately describe the fields at Nelspruit and Polokwane as hybrid pitches. The playing surfaces at these two venues are 97% natural grass and 3% artificial (poly) fibers.

Desso, the Dutch manufacturer of artificially enhanced pitches, was chosen to prepare these pitches. The company’s Grassmaster system produces a playing surface that is 97% natural grass with 20 million synthetic fibers literally “stitched” every ¾-inch across the field. The fibers are woven into the sand base beneath the turf to give the pitches stability, which is further enhanced as the roots of the grass intertwine with the artificial fibers. Desso prefers injecting the fibers into the soil before the grass is sown and giving the grass a year to integrate with the fibers.

U.S. sports fans may be familiar with the Desso system because it is the playing surface at Lambeau Field of the NFL Green Bay Packers and Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium, home field of the NFL Denver Broncos. Half of the clubs in the English Premier League play on pitches of this type, as well, and the system has been well received by English soccer players and fans.

Even so, soccer – particularly at the highest levels of the sport—has not embraced artificial turf as enthusiastically as U.S. football or even, to a lesser extent, baseball.  Will this change? Likely.

On Oct. 6, 2009, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter said that artificial turf is the “future of football.” He added, in an interview broadcast on a European sports show, he believes that most countries around the world will play on artificial turf eventually. He cited artificial turf’s ability to withstand traffic and be used day after day as the reason why it will become more popular for the sport.

Of course, many communities in the United States have installed artificial turf facilities to host youth sport, including soccer, for these same reasons. It’s only at the higher levels of the sport that there is significant opposition, mostly by players, to artificial turf.

Recognizing that artificial turf is the best solution to providing adequate playing conditions in some situations and conceding, to a degree, to advances made in its engineering, FIFA several years ago put in place a certification system for artificial turf pitches and issues certificates at a hefty price for suppliers. The certificates are good for a period of three years.

FieldTurf, which revived interest in artificial turf  in the 1990s with its, then, revolutionary product with crumb rubber infill, was the first artificial surface to attain FIFA Recommended status and was the first artificial pitch to hold a UEFA Cup Qualifying Round and the first to host a FIFA Soccer Tournament. Most recently, FieldTurf announced it is installing its system at Woudestein Stadium, home to a first division football club in the Netherlands.

Another indication of artificial turf’s brighter future in the sport is FIFA’s “Win in Africa with Africa” program that aims to build at least one artificial pitch in each of its 52 African member associations. Also, when the World Cup leaves South Africa it will have left behind 27 new artificial pitches, three in each of the country’s nine provinces.

While the 2010 World Cup stadiums are ready for thousands of fans and pitches are ready for play, artificial turf manufacturers are already eyeing the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with hopes that they can provide products that gain broader acceptance at the highest level of the sport and generate the type of recognition that has resulted in thousands of U.S. football programs –from the professional to the high school level – to switch from grass to artificial turf.

The stakes for the future of artificial turf for soccer fields and for soccer itself are huge considering the sport’s global appeal and the millions of fields, many of them little more than dusty, sun-baked fields — whether in urban centers or in the countryside — where it is played.

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