0 A turning point for turfcare

Alves2The challenges associated with preparing high quality pitches in a tropical environment are obvious, and where being a groundsman maintaining a pitch in Brazil has often, in the past, been regarded as something that could be done as a broad extension of an agronomist's education, it is now starting to be recognised as a profession in its own right.

This is being welcomed and driven by groundsmen in Brazil, and one of the men at the forefront of this push is Antonio Alves do Nascimento Filho (Alves Filho), Head Groundsman at the Arena Castelão stadium, in Fortaleza, in the northeast of the country.

In a previous Pitchcare article, Alves predicted the World Cup would be a turning point for turfcare professionals in Brazil. He said this indeed had been the case. New technologies had been brought in from Europe, new contacts made and he expected things to improve even further in the future.

Although there are options for studying the profession in more depth around the more southern cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, up in the northeast the opportunity for focused study is more difficult.

Alves1Alves said the best opportunities for groundsmen in Brazil to further their education is to travel abroad and study in places like the USA and Europe.

I asked him about the experience of the World Cup and how it was to prepare a pitch for the biggest tournament in the world.

"For me, the World Cup was an incredible experience," confirms Alves. "I love the challenge that working with turfgrass brings, and it was rewarding to see some of the best players in the world playing on the pitch here. There were many memorable moments from the games here and, unfortunately, it was also where Neymar was injured in the quarter final."

Special preparations to the pitch were of course needed in the months leading up to the World Cup and, as well as a programme of topdressing, fertilising and applying growth regulator, the pitch required verti-cutting every fifteen days to manage the fast-growing Bermuda grass.

ArenaCastelãoThe pitch at Arena Castelão ordinarily consists of 100% Celebration Bermuda grass, which thrives in the hot climate of northeast Brazil. In Fortaleza, the weather is hot all year round with temperatures usually varying between about 22-34°C.

This type of grass grows quickly, is hardy, responds well to fertilisers and can handle a low height of cut. It can be a handful to manage though, as it creates a large amount of thatch.

In the week leading up to, and during, the World Cup the pitch was overseeded with ryegrass to improve colour for when the world was watching.

"In total, we did around twenty days of ryegrass overseeding and the colour was beautiful for the tournament. About five days after seeding, the ryegrass grass came up, but it was temporary as it later died off in the heat here," Alves explained.

"This time of year, we have a problem with shade and Bermuda grass needs sun, so we did overseed with ryegrass in this area, but the recuperation after games and training, when we didn't have light, was slow," he added.

ArenaCastelão2The shade problem Alves mentioned is the common issue with modern stadiums and the amount of natural light they let in. It was a Fifa directive that the specially constructed roof should cover all fans sat inside the stadium, so this meant that, because of the time of year of the tournament, the six-yard box on one side of the pitch was permanently in shade.

Alves said; "We don't have artificial lights because they are too expensive to run and, also, the problem is not on the pitch but just off it most of the year, so it's hard to justify."

Some new equipment was brought in before the tournament and the inventory now includes two Dennis mowers (with a verti-cutter attachment), a John Deere Aerocore 800, a Triplex John Deere, a rotary John Deere LA135, a Husqvarna machine and a Spray 200L hand fertiliser.

Alves said consultants, working for Fifa, were supervising the preparations throughout.

ArenaCastelãoMowingThe maintenance programme between matches included cutting, applying fertilisers and using a carefully planned irrigation scheme every day. Aeration, decompression, disease and weed control was carried out when necessary.

Every day, coverage, compaction and moisture were measured and analysed.

Alves continued; "The programme was intense and depended on wear to the pitch and games coming up. The main problem was the training before games."

A headache for Alves during the group stages of the tournament was that both teams trained on the pitch on the day before the actual game - one hour for each team. As can be imagined, after this training the pitch was in need of major repair work. On match day, with the pitch needing to be ready six hours before kick off, the groundstaff had their work cut out to prepare it in time.

Four extra staff were employed for the tournament in addition to the three regular full-time staff there to cut, do the linemarking, put the goals and flags up and continue irrigation before the warm up and match.

ArenaCastelão5"We needed to give a lot of attention and take a big amount of responsibility because there were many details to take care of. Everybody looked at the pitch on match day and it was our job to make it as perfect as it could be. The pitch was good and resisted all the wear well," Alves confirmed.

During the quarter and semi finals, teams were not allowed to train on the pitch on the day preceding the game.

Goal line technology was also used for the first time at a World Cup and this required calibration and setting up before each game by officials.

I asked if any special products had been brought in to get the job done. "We always work with good products, machinery, paints, fertilisers and seeds, but I believe most important was that we needed to enjoy our work with turfgrass, even though we were working very hard. It was an intense amount of work in a short time where we had to pay great attention to getting the details right."

Six games were played at Arena Castelão with a total attendance of nearly 360,000. The usual stadium capacity of 63,900 was decreased to 60,350 for the World Cup to allow for a press area.

The Brazil team played there twice and other games included Germany taking on Ghana and Netherlands playing Mexico.

The stadium was built in 1973 and, since the early 2000s, plans to redevelop it have been in action. Major developments were completed in time for the World Cup and also the Confederations Cup in 2013.

For the pitch, a Fifa requirement was that everybody in the stadium, including the people in the first row, had to have a perfect view of the game.

ArenaCastelãoIrrigationThis meant they had to lower the entire pitch around three metres. The work, which started in 2011, also included digging new drainage and installing a new irrigation system.

Alongside the pitch, the stadium also underwent a large amount of redevelopment. A 4,200 space underground car-park was built beneath, a whole section of one side of the stadium was demolished and rebuilt with state of the art facilities and new seats were fitted throughout.

All the redevelopment work was completed by December 2012 and Arena Castelão was the first of all twelve Brazilian hosting stadiums to be completed.

Alves works for Rio de Janeiro-based company Greenleaf, which is responsible for the pitch maintenance in seven Brazilian stadiums: Maracanã, Fortaleza, Minas Gerais, Salvador, Recife, Brasília and Manaus.

He began working with turfgrass in 2008 and enjoyed preparing pitches for tournaments especially. He divided his time working at two stadiums - Recife and Fortaleza. Now he manages solely the latter.

Alves and his team had a well devised programme for the World Cup but, sometimes, even the best laid plans can be interrupted by hiccups and I asked if all had gone as swimmingly as hoped.

ArenaCastelão6"We had a plan, but every day we needed to have meetings regarding the work, because it was a tough and unique situation with many games and training sessions in a short time. The grass was very stressed. The programme depended on how the grass was doing. So, overall, we kept to the plan but with small changes as and when needed," he explained.

What had Alves most enjoyed during the World Cup? "For me, it was to meet and get to know other people in the industry and to show the world our city and our stadium here. As someone who loves working with turfgrass, to see the best players on our pitch was a special moment.

As a Brazilian groundsman who loves football, this was a dream come true," he said.

Looking around the stadium, it is clear to see how Arena Castelão has benefitted from the World Cup - the entire place oozes grandness. From the chaotic schedules of June and July this year, a relatively calm routine has returned. The only scars borne, from the action seen here a few months ago, are in areas in two corners just off the pitch where LED screens were stationed and these are rapidly recovering.

The two teams that share the stadium, Fortaleza and Ceará, now have a magnificent arena in which to do battle.

The spiritual home of football is deserving of stadiums and playing surfaces which offer the highest possible standard. Alves Filho has certainly got the latter covered.

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