0 FIFA Update - Costa Rica to Qatar

The men's World Cup in Qatar starts this weekend, and activity has been rather busy for FIFA Senior Pitch Management Manager Alan Ferguson and his team.

National Stadium

Years' worth of planning is coming to the fore in Qatar, but whilst the final preparations are being made, other tournaments in the football calendar are taking place.

The FIFA Women's U20 World Cup, held in Costa Rica from the 10th August to the 28th August 2022, marked the return of youth tournaments following a three-year absence due to the pandemic.

With the men's World Cup only months away, this is the final event before FIFA's showpiece kicks off in Qatar. While football in the desert comes with its own challenges, Alan and his team faced other factors in Costa Rica's tropical climate.

The first major issue for Alan to contend with was the number of countries hosting the tournament, with Panama originally appointed co-hosts.

Alan explains: "Difficulties around the pandemic saw Panama drop out, and the decision was taken to allow Costa Rica to go it alone as a single host.

Fortunately, just before the pandemic struck, the first inspections in Costa Rica to inspect the stadiums and training pitches were made, so we had a base to work from. Although travel to Costa Rica was not possible during the pandemic, some work was able to be carried out locally with virtual, and this allowed some valuable preparatory work to be undertaken, which proved invaluable when the world opened up again.

Left: Morera Soto lightning Right: Morera Soto lightning

The biggest challenge for the team was the timing of the tournament because the August 10th to 28th dates saw the tournament fall in the Costa Rican rainy season.

Those dates weren't the most ideal for the tournament, but the international calendar is pretty packed and the dates were the best available. You sometimes just have to get on with the hand you are dealt, but I knew from my counterparts in Costa Rica that the rain would impact the tournament at some point.

One of the first bits of research was a detailed look at the last ten years' rainfall. At first, I thought someone had made a mistake adding an extra zero. Sadly, it proved to be correct, with 3,500 plus mm falling annually. The majority of this falls in the rainy season, which sees the country regularly hit by tropical storms. Costa Rica has the Caribbean on one side and the Pacific on the other, so it gets hit from both sides."

The tournament was hosted in two stadiums, with training hosted over nine training sites. Reducing the number of stadiums was done as part of FIFA's imitative to make tournaments more cost-effective while, at the same time, allowing more participation from member associations.

Plans are already in place to expand the men's tournament to 46 teams starting from 2026, and the women's Australia and New Zealand tournament will feature 32 teams. Increasing the number of participants is also being looked at for the youth tournaments. To meet the growing number of teams and reduced number of stadiums, Alan is turning to pitch technology.

Alan Ferguson (3rd from right) and his team at the Costa Rica final

"With technologies available, such as pitch stitching and grow lighting, it is now possible to set them up to play multiple matches on one pitch. The Costa Rica tournament featured 32 games, with 18 played in the National Stadium and 14 played in the Morera Soto stadium. By staying in one city, FIFA also eliminated the need for the teams to fly from city to city during the tournament, thus reducing their carbon footprint. Working in this way will help FIFA achieve our aim of making tournaments carbon neutral as part of our green policy by 2030."

Alan continued, "The tournament match schedule featured double headers during the group phase and the knockout phase. The condensed schedule saw four games per day being played, with two in each stadium. Games in Morera Soto kicked off at 11.00am and 2pm, with games in Estadio Nacional kicking off at 5pm and 8pm. The first matchday was quickly followed by a second match day before a rest day. Match days three and four followed ahead of a second rest day, ahead of the group phase conclusion with match days five and six."

The youth World Cups allowed the teams to experience top-level international tournament football. As well as hosting the 32 games, both stadiums hosted official training sessions. Each session lasted one hour and, combined with the matches, saw the National Stadium host 83 hours of use in twenty days while Morera Soto hosted 60.5 hours in twenty days.

Left: Morera Soto Right: Line marking in Qatar

Alan says the excellent traction levels resulted in low surface damage, fully justifying the decision to stitch both pitches. The pitches are the first ones to be stitched in Central America and have created quite a bit of interest among the region's football community.

Having the tournament in the rainy season was always going to impact the match schedule at some point, and on three separate occasions, games were hit by tropical rainstorms.

"Despite coming from Scotland, where rain is a fairly common occurrence, I had never seen rain like this before," Alan explains. "Within five minutes of the rain starting, the weather was resembling something like the end of the world. Within the game, there is a protocol for suspension due to severe weather, and within three days, we experienced it three times.

The decision to stop the games was a no-brainer because the safety of the players and fans comes first every time. Suspensions in play in this part of the world are not new, and any sport played outdoors has protocols for such situations. We all had the use of a weather app to give alerts when severe weather is imminent. When the game is stopped, a pre-set protocol kicks in. The first suspension in play is 15 minutes. If the suspension has to continue, another 15-minute period is added.

This can go on up to an hour, at which point a decision has to be made as to whether the game has to be abandoned and re-scheduled. We knew there was a big chance that the heavy rains could impact a game at some point. Part of the pre-match maintenance was to ensure that the pitches were well aerated. Our theory was that if we could open the pitches up ahead of the game, and the rain started, we had a chance to keep the game going. What I didn't take into account was the intensity of a tropical storm. I have seen rain during a game but never with the intensity that hit the three games in Costa Rica. After barely five minutes, the play had to be stopped as beyond the rain, the lightning was a real risk to life.

Once the rain eased, what was impressive was the speed that the water drained away into the aeration holes, and play resumed on each occasion within the allocated time."

Away from the matchday conditions, the training sites took centre stage during the build-up. The tournament originally had ten training pitches selected in six venues. Two of the venues, the National Football Center and the training centre of local club Deportivo Alajuelense, would provide six of the pitches.

Restricting the tournament to one city also reduces the number of available training venues, and working in this way isn't without its challenges for the pitch team.

Left: Over seeding in Qatar Right: National Stadium

"We knew two of the sites were struggling to get over the line and knew we needed one of them to make it to give us enough training options to get through the group phase," Alan said.

"Once we are in the knockout stage, we were in a good place as half of the sixteen teams would be eliminated. The hardest part of any tournament delivery is the final week build-up and the group phase. With the tournament all in San Jose and the immediate surrounding area, there was not such a wide choice of venues.

Beyond the two multiple pitch sites, we used one local school pitch (Lincoln School), one community pitch (San Rafael) and a second division club stadium pitch (Piedade). The other pitch offered to us in Cartago did not come up to scratch with some issues to player safety over micro levels. This meant that nine of the ten offered went into the competition.

Training sites are always the bigger challenge for any football tournament organiser, and FIFA is no different. The sites are never all straightforward, with many organisers looking to use the tournament to boost football facilities in the host countries. I have no issue with that, but sometimes the sites offered present just too much of a challenge.

The Piedades Stadium days before the tournament

Like everyone else, we have a budget, and following the first inspection, each of the selected sites is risk rated on a scale of one to five, with one being a complete fail and probably requiring significant funding to bring up to standard. I like to take on training sites that are two or better. Two needs work but can be acceptable, while a three meets minimum international standards. But it's not just the pitch that has to tick all the boxes, although that is one of the key boxes.

The training site has to be close to the team hotels, and the onsite facilities are also risk-rated by the FIFA training site team. The training site team looks after the dressing rooms and other facilities, such as the medical room and media facilities, while the pitch team looks after the pitch.

It really is a team effort to get the training sites up to scratch. It sometimes happens that either the pitch is good and the changing facilities are bad, or vice versa. For a youth tournament such as the women's U20, the teams rotate through the sites, so every team has the same experience. No one is disadvantaged or gets an advantage over any other team. In Costa Rica, we gave the training sites back in significantly better condition than we took them on, and this gives us great satisfaction that we have left a legacy for football in that country."

Left: Koro Field Top Maker Right: H-Vac system

After twenty hectic days, 31 games, and 207 training sessions, the final game arrived. For Alan, this is where the whole team's efforts come to a conclusion. The FIFA U20 Women's World Cup was a success for all concerned and a very welcome return to tournament football.

With Costa Rica behind them, it's on to Qatar for Alan. By the time this article is published, the 2022 World Cup, a project that started over 10 years ago, will be only days away.

Qatar Calling

Days after returning from Costa Rica, Alan was back at Heathrow and heading out to Doha for the September inspection. This inspection would take in all 74 pitches (8 stadiums and 33 training sites, with two pitches per training site), plus the delivery of the second major pitch management workshop.

Alan explained, if someone had offered him the pitches at this stage of preparation in the conditions they are in now, he would have grabbed them with both hands.

"The October inspection was focused on the renovations that introduced the ryegrass to the stadium pitches and to the primary training pitches," Alan explained.

"In all eight stadiums, the environment is being artificially controlled above and below the ground by a combination of the stadium H-Vac system and the vacuum and ventilation system under the ground.

Opening ceremony rehearsal

The unique combination holds the average air temperature between 23 °C and 24 °C in all eight stadiums, which is ideal for ryegrass. The root zone temperatures are held just slightly above this with the vacuum and ventilation system. The ryegrass is introduced to the Paspalum to boost the pitch presentation in the Arab winter. Paspalum is happy in temperatures reaching 30 °C and beyond."

This is all well and good coming out of the renovation period, but the issue for the team is that in the World Cup time, the Arab winter begins. Temperatures can fall quickly back into the mid to high 20 °C, which is pleasant enough for most, but for the Paspalum, it can result in yellowing off.

As Alan explained: "To protect the overall aesthetic of the pitches, the rye comes into its own in the cooler temperatures of the mid-20s and keeps the pitches look good. The only way the team could guarantee green pitches and good coverage through the whole tournament was to go through what is referred to as the transition period. Once the hybrid swards were cleaned in traditional fashion with the Koro Field Top Maker, the rye was sown into the pitch tops."

Alan returned to Doha mid-October to inspect the result of the grow-in, and began the final preparations for the tournament.

Left: Al Thumama

A huge part of the successful works to date is put down to the Workshop programme. Two major pitch management workshops have been delivered over four days in two of the stadiums hosting the finals.

They took place in 2021 in Al Bayt, with the second being delivered during the inspection in Al Thumama. All 611 groundskeepers and their managers have benefitted from the educational days put on by FIFA, with some of the top names in the grounds industry delivering four fantastic training days.

These workshops ensure mechanics, irrigation engineers, spray operators and machine operators all have the best understanding of the state-of-the-art range of equipment at their disposal.

Ultimately for Alan and the pitch team, the 2022 World Cup will bring four years of work and training to a conclusion. As it would be for anyone, this is a special moment in Alan's career because when Qatar and Ecuador kick off the opening game on 20th November, his first men's tournament in charge begins.

Come on England!

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