Eight months on from the last FIFA Update, Blair Ferguson talks with the world governing body's Senior Pitch Management Manager, Alan Ferguson, and discovers a lot has changed in the landscape of international football due to the COVID-19 situation.
Education City Stadium
Recent statistics show that, in 2019, one thousand and eighty-two full international matches were played across the globe. This was the highest number of international matches to be played in a single year since official rankings came into use back in 1993. Compare that number to the three-hundred and fifty-two games that were able to be played in 2020, which is the lowest number since 1987 when only 323 were completed, and you start to get a sense of the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had.
The harsh reality is that, for much of the past year, hosting international football tournaments has gone against the available medical advice. Whilst domestic football, European club competitions and elite international qualifiers and play-offs have continued, there has been an ever-increasing number of positive COVID-19 tests in late 2020 and early 2021, especially with the second variant that originated in England.
Like many football fans, proud Scotsman Alan Ferguson saw the domestic game's return as a small sign of normality returning and something that anchored life in lockdown, with Scotland ending their twenty-two-year wait to qualify for a major tournament a highlight of an otherwise flat eight months.
On the work front, the aim is to be ready when needed, but cancellations and a reconfiguration of the international football calendar have been ongoing, with the difficulties of international travel and player and staff safety the most significant challenges to be overcome.
Al Gharafa stadium / Al Janoub Stadium
Alan explains: "The issues we have faced since May have been two-fold. Firstly, international travel was almost non-existent for a time, making the movement of teams almost impossible. Even if we had been able to move teams and keep them safe, ensuring they were in COVID secure environments on the ground was a more significant issue. It is not like bringing one team to another country to play a Champions League tie. Our tournaments involve as many as sixteen, twenty-four or thirty-two teams from all around the world, with all the support staff that brings. You hear the term 'bubble' used now to describe a safe environment, but it would have been a considerable bubble to cope with a FIFA tournament with all the games and training, and, at that time, we did not know enough about the virus."
"In many cases, that didn't even become an issue because the qualifying tournaments had not been completed, so there were no teams to participate!"
"We had been due to deliver the Olympic football tournament in Japan as well as the Women's U17 World Cup in India and the Women's U20 World Cup in Costa Rica and Panama. The Club World Cup was also due to be played in Qatar in December, but has now been moved to February 2021."
"One of the hardest jobs at FIFA recently has been for the team who controls the international calendar deciding who would play when. The competitions team at FIFA decided very early that the qualifying competitions and confederation tournaments should take priority when the playing of games resumed. Whilst a plan has started to take shape for 2021 and beyond, the full impact from the COVID-19 crisis will be felt for several years, with many not expecting football normality to be back until 2023 at the earliest."
Alan working from his home office
"As it stands, I'm receiving updates from the FIFA Bureau of Council who are the body within FIFA responsible for rubber-stamping all football related decisions. The Bureau will have received recommendations from the various project teams who manage the tournaments advising the best way forward. As you can imagine, this is a very involved process which relies on all six confederations assistance with the date planning."
Whilst the overall logistics for hosting a tournament have remained next to impossible, making sure pitches will be ready when the time comes has remained Alan's issue. Working from his home office, he has regularly spoken to colleagues in Qatar, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Japan, Peru, Indonesia and the United States.
Having a network of consultants and contacts in these countries has already gone a long way to keeping preparations on track. An essential factor for Alan was not losing any progress made for the original tournament dates while trying, where possible, to take the first steps in other countries.
"To ensure conditions were safe enough for youth tournaments to go ahead, FIFA decided to move them all into 2022. This was the year when the next editions of the U17 and U20 Women's World Cups were due to be held anyway, so the simple part of the decision was to offer the 2020 hosts the next edition of both tournaments. India accepted the 2022 edition of the Women's U17 World Cup and Costa Rica the U20 edition."
"For us as the pitch team, in an odd way it helped as it created eighteen months plus build-up, which allows pitch projects in both countries that had been impacted by the pandemic to be completed. This was more of a bonus in India where several training sites were being built as new. All the work that has already been done by our consultants, iTurf Management and Labosport, is still relevant and we can still work on that."
Al Rayan Stadium / maintenance at the Al Bayt Stadium
"My main part in this was to extend the planning schedules and amend the budgets to take in the additional eighteen months to the new dates. We had already built the schedules, so extending was reasonably straightforward. We also had established counterparts on the ground in all countries who were working with our consultants, so having the network already set up was a huge bonus. We had also met all of the people involved before the pandemic began, so meeting online was easy. The more time has gone on, the more you come to see the value in meeting people face to face to initially talk through things, and I think that's been a massive benefit for us in this situation."
"That initial contact, coupled with our ability to capture information in GrasPro, has put us in a really strong place. The system has been activated in all the host countries so we are able to track the progress of operations and support local contractors with advice based on what they tell us and what we can see in the data."
The eight months from May to January have mainly been hypothesising on how events will pan out, but the most significant sign of recovery came on 1st January 2021 when it was announced that the FIFA Club World Cup would become the first tournament of the year to be played.
As the smallest tournament FIFA hosts, Alan feels it is an ideal starting point in a bid to find a sustainable solution and learn for larger-scale tournaments.
Khalifa Stadium / Qatar University
"The size of the Club World Cup, and the fact it is in Qatar where we have been preparing for the Men's 2022 World Cup, makes it a good starting point for me," Alan began.
"We will also benefit from Qatar's experience of hosting several tournaments during the pandemic with little COVID-19 related issues. It will be my and many of my colleagues first time back in action for over a year, ironically since the last Club World Cup in 2019. The FIFA team on site will be capped at around thirty-five, but will have the support from the FIFA part-owned Q22 entity. The people operating Q22 have gained valuable experience working under COVID-19 conditions, which will help us. I'm hoping we can take what we learn from this event and use it for others going forward, because it will take some time for normality to return to the game worldwide, so some of the measures will become part of the norm for a while."
"The Club World Cup will also offer the first chance to test some of the stadiums already completed for the 2022 finals. Although vacuum and ventilation systems and pitch stitching have still to be added to all eight stadiums, myself and the team from Aspire Sports, who are the in-house consultant for the host country and who manage the contractors on site, will have the first chance to thoroughly test the operational delivery under FIFA tournament conditions."
"Three stadiums - Education City, Khalifa International and Al Rayan - will host the eight-game match schedule. The tournament will open in Khalifa and finish in Education City. For me, it will be slightly different because, during the tournament in February, I'll be getting remote support from the pitch team who would usually be on site. There is no substitute for having the core pitch team in the country with me, but these are exceptional circumstances. With the tournament being hosted in a well- established set up and having a small match schedule, I think it is doable."
Sapporo Dome outside and (right) inside
The second event scheduled for 2021 is the Olympic Football Tournament which, along with the full Olympic Games, was the largest casualty in the 2020 sporting calendar. The FIFA pitch team had carried out full inspections in Japan and were well set for the games, but with the one-year delay comes another full season of J1 League action for the pitches. Alan has been in continued contact with the Japan FA, and Local Organising Committee who are confident games will go ahead. But, much like football worldwide, the chance of having fans attend relies heavily on vaccination programmes and local COVID-19 restrictions in the country.
The J1 League season ended in late December and will get underway again towards the end of February 2021. Travel restrictions are currently still preventing travel to Japan, and an early inspection of the pitches has already been put back to April. Alan is confident that, given the vast amount of work that has already been done, inspections being delayed to as late as April shouldn't prevent successful delivery.
The biggest job outstanding on the list is the stitching of Sapporo's pitch in the North of the country. Sapporo Dome is an iconic venue in the country that hosted 2002 World Cup matches. During the Olympics, it is scheduled to host up to ten games in eleven days and, being an indoor arena, it means the pitch will be inside for up to sixteen to twenty days.
Alan explains there is no opportunity to slide the pitch out during the tournament, so stitching is a must to ensure a quality surface. Previous issues regarding the tray system's four tonne weight limit were solved with a successful trial of two smaller SIS Pitch machines which are scheduled to begin work in June 2021.
The final tournament for 2021 will be the newly created FIFA Arab Cup to be played in Doha. It will also act as the full test event for the 2022 World Cup when seven of the eight stadiums and the majority of the forty-three training sites will be tested.
Alan Ferguson in Qatar
"It is crucial we know what we will test and how we need to test the various elements during the Arab Cup," commented Alan. "I know that when they come out of the Arab Cup, the pitch plan must be almost complete with only very fine-tuning left to be done. The tournament will be played over the same period as the World Cup - from the end of November to the 18th December - so it is as close a simulation to the main event as we can get, and that will benefit everyone involved."
"The pitches for the 2022 tournament will feature the most advanced technology available. The team will be looking to identify the optimum growing conditions for the warm season grass, ensuring billiard table levels which will provide the perfect surfaces for the world's top players."
Specialised workshops to ensure the grounds teams have the best available training have already begun and will continue right through 2021 and beyond. Each company successful in supplying equipment or turf systems to the tournament have to participate in delivering training.
After sales service also has to see full support set up in the country. This has not always been the case and, despite significant sums of money being spent on the pitches for previous tournaments, they have not always seen the full value for the money spent. This is one of the key areas that Alan has moved to improve on, and already those involved have given full support to the FIFA education initiative.
During lockdown, FIFA delivered virtual workshops to the Aspire team. These will be rolled out to the contractors, ensuring that everyone in the five-hundred plus strong turf team looking after all the pitches receive the best training. Alan's aim is that providing this training will ensure the best group of pitches to date are prepared for the 2022 tournament.
Alongside preparations for the upcoming tournaments and monitoring the youth events due in 2022 alongside the Qatar World Cup, future tournaments such as the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, and even the Men's World Cup 2026 in America, Canada and Mexico, are well into their planning stages.
Alan's optimism is that the tournaments beyond 2022 will take place in a more familiar way. For now, he is taking it step by step, starting with The Club World Cup. For him, a small return to normality which he hopes will gather pace as the year goes on.