0 FIFA Update: Levelling the playing field

2022 marks the start of the men's World Cup year for the FIFA pitch team. Qatar's final installations, training and touches are being made, but as preparations continue for the wintertime showpiece event, Alan Ferguson and his team have been at work delivering three other tournaments. Report by Blair Ferguson.

Shortly before the beginning of the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon, the Confederation for African Football (CAF) requested the assistance of FIFA, including advice on the pitches. This tournament, coupled with the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi and Arab Cup in Qatar, highlighted the disparity in resources in the work that still needs to be done in levelling the playing field for the member associations.

Alan explains: "The three tournaments delivered showed how different football pitches are facilitated around the world and how not all member associations are on the same level playing field when it comes to available pitch resources, staff training and equipment."

"On joining FIFA back in 2018, one of my key deliverables was to improve pitch provision and raise training for grounds teams across all FIFA Tournaments played worldwide. Of course, I was not naïve enough to think that the high standard of pitches we have in the UK and most of Europe would be the norm around the globe, but I did not expect the gulf between 211 member associations in the six confederations to be as big as it is."

"That said, we have a plan in place to bridge that gulf, and I am happy to say that plan is being rolled out now and starting to deliver through our Global Pitch Management Framework."

Alan Ferguson and right: Al Bayt stadium

1st December 2021 saw the FIFA Arab Cup played in Doha, Qatar. The tournament was first played in 1963 in Lebanon and is now being reintroduced to the international calendar. It was also used as a test event for the World Cup to be played later this year in Qatar. Six of the eight stadiums and sixteen of thirty-two training sites were tested ahead of the main event.

For Alan and the FIFA pitch team, it provided the ideal opportunity to test all the new technologies installed into the pitches and, more importantly, test the operational delivery for the World Cup.

"After nearly four hard years of planning, it was an amazing feeling to be pitch-side in Al Bayt for the opening game and seeing the pitch host its first full international game," Alan said. "The match schedule was set to replicate the World Cup schedule, which sees four matches per day being played in the group phase. You have to take your hat off to the Qatar government and the Emir on what the country has produced to date."

"I have been going to Doha since October 2018 and, each time I visit, the advancement in infrastructure that has been made takes your breath away. We have eight state of the art stadiums, which are all themed in the Arabic culture and are futuristic. They are fabulous football stadiums and would grace any World Cup."

Ritz Carlton used by tournament winners Chelsea with the magnificent Grand Mosque in the background

The grounds teams were set up as they will be for the tournament in December when the 611 strong team that make up the pitch crews will work around the clock in two twelve hour shifts. The group stage will be really tough for the grounds teams, with games coming every forty-eight hours to each of the eight venues. However, the thought of having to work in such long stints will be eased by having all the latest turf equipment to hand to ensure a top-quality delivery.

"It is not until you work abroad that you really appreciate the turf industry back home. Unfortunately, Qatar is very much the exception, not the rule, but it's great to see what can be achieved when all the latest technology is assembled in one place. Without a doubt, the group of pitches that have been prepared will be among the best to ever host a World Cup."

Following the Arab Cup in Qatar, which finished on the 18th December, the team had two weeks back with their families for the Christmas holidays before heading out to Cameroon as part of a FIFA support programme for the 2021 AFCON tournament.

Alan touched on his early experience of AFCON in his last update but, since then, with the tournament completed, he has had the time to reflect on the experience.

"CAF asked FIFA for support in raising the quality of delivery of the continent's flagship tournament," Alan explains. "Following two visits to Cameroon to inspect the stadiums and training sites, it was never going to be straightforward. While it is the aim to deliver top-quality pitches for all the tournaments we get involved with, you have to be realistic and set goals that can be achieved."

The latest Dennis electric mower in action in Al Janoub. The hybrid pitches will be maintained by the latest equipment available

"When the FIFA team visited Cameroon for the first time in August 2021, we were taken to the stadiums and training sites in the five cities selected to host the tournament. Whilst there was a basic infrastructure to build from in the stadiums, it was a different story in the training sites. It was like stepping back several years in time. Therefore, out the box thinking and a bit of creativity was the order of the day."

"You know you have a challenge on your hands when domestic rotary mowers were doing the mowing in some stadiums, and these were the only pieces of equipment they had. It was a stark reminder of how easy it is to take what we have to work within the UK and Qatar for granted."

"To bring improvement to difficult projects is no easy task, and you have to do it in stages. CAF and the AFCON will very much be a journey, but every journey has to start somewhere. Following the inspections to the pitches, we set out the immediate objectives for the 2021 AFCON that were achievable. We set out a short-term objective, a medium-term objective and a long term objective."

People talk about five-year plans. It will take every day of the next five years to bridge the gap to match the pitches delivered at other tournaments and begin to level the playing field between confederations like CAF and UEFA or the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), where Qatar are a member association."

FIFA pitch management scores their pitches from 1 to 5, with 1 being a fail and 5 meeting international standard. Alan and the team thought taking the pitches in Cameroon into the tournament on a 3 would be a good start. The issues around the lack of equipment, education and support required for the contractors in Cameroon were among the other issues that needed to be addressed.

The Mohamad bin Zyhed pitch being stitched

To build a pitch project for a major tournament like the AFCON, Alan estimates you need a minimum of two years. By the time the first inspection was made, the team had just under six months. After that, FIFA agreed to set up the purchase of pedestrian mowers and supply line marking kits. Whilst it was a big first step in the right direction, Alan explains that it barely scratched the surface.

"At least we now had something to work with, and the workshops could be set up," Alan begins.

"The tournament was delivered in six stadiums across five cities, and one of the most important parts of any pitch project build-up is the educational workshops. It is normal practice to select one of the tournament venues as the venue for the workshop. Then all the other grounds teams meet at that venue for a couple of days of presentations and practical clinics. The issue the team had in Cameroon was that many of the grounds teams did not have the means to travel. When I was made aware of this, it became an easy decision that we would have to take the workshop to all five cities."

"I was supported in Cameroon by Jorge Palma, a consultant from Seville, who works with iTurf and Oliver Edmond, who leads the grounds team in the Stade de France. Cameroon is a French-speaking country, and we were advised to have as many French speakers with us as possible."

"I have considered learning a language, and some people might say I struggle enough with English. But, really, the issue is what one to concentrate on because the tournaments are so spread out. On occasions like this, being able to get the information across myself would be hugely beneficial, but luckily we are able to use other professionals from the industry."

Each World Cup stadium is equipped with three aeration options

The consultants within the FIFA Global Pitch Management Framework are drawn from around the world. FIFA have two appointed consultancies, with iTurf and Labo Sport supporting the main part of the tournament deliveries. Through his travels, Alan comes into contact with other consultants with specific specialities in turf management who can add value to the framework team. By adding these specialists to the team, they can look to move projects like CAF forward and begin the process to bring the quality of pitches and pitch management up.

"With the new equipment delivered to the stadiums, we had the base to start with. We also sent Jorge back to Cameroon to work with each venue and training site to provide additional one-to-one training. Whilst we knew it was not as much as we would have liked to deliver, it was better than what had been in place before we started."

"The team's other issue with the main stadium pitches in Olembe and Douala was that the pitches were 100% natural with no growing aids like grow lights or hybrid stitching. I knew from the off the pitch delivery in these stadiums would be a difficult one. The stadiums are wrap-around, but the turf is weak, with no help for the grass. An added issue for the National Stadium in Olembe was the opening and closing ceremony, which added huge pressure to the turf that was already struggling from the rehearsals going into the tournament."

"Having state of the art hybrid pitches in other tournaments is a huge advantage, the benefit of which cannot be underestimated. Obviously, there are significant time, money, and infrastructure issues to consider in this case."

"We can't install hybrid pitches wherever we want because it is not sustainable, and there needs to be processes that ensure the longevity of an investment like that."

Top quality Dennis G860 mowers being used on the stadium pitches in the UAE

The AFCON had difficulties from start to finish for the team but, whilst the pitches were better than in previous AFCONs, Alan is the first to admit they were a long, long way from being good pitches. The tournament has certainly shown him what they need to focus on for the next addition to be played in the Ivory Coast in 2023. The first inspection for this has already been carried out, which should pave the way for the start of the sixteen-month build-up.

From Cameroon, it was on to the Club World Cup in the UAE. Again the contrast in the level of provisions was there for all to see and demonstrated just how far apart the football world is when it comes to pitch quality on a global scale.

The FIFA Club World Cup is the smallest of all the FIFA World Cups in its current form. Due to the pandemic, the 2021 tournament was being played in February 2022, just a couple of months late. Significant here was the fact this was the first tournament not to be played in a Bio Bubble, although Covid screening was carried out every seventy-two hours on the entire workforce.

For Alan, it was a return to the city of Abu Dhabi, where he delivered his first FIFA tournament, which was also the Club World Cup in 2018. This edition was played in two stadiums with both pitches stitched, and eight training sites were also in use.

The two stadiums used were the Mohamad bin Zyhed and Al Nayhan. Having the stadiums just an eight-minute drive apart was ideal, with no training ground more than twenty minutes away from the main tournament HQ hotel.

"FIFA has been experimenting in reducing the number of stadiums used in tournaments by embracing the latest pitch technology. To date, this has been successful and, in August, the sixteen team Women's U20 World Cup to be played in Costa Rica will see the thirty-two match programme hosted in two stadiums."

"There can be no doubt that good in-country infrastructure and available budget make quite a difference. The skillset through the contracting teams delivering the pitches is much higher than elsewhere, but the range of the equipment available to them is also much better and in line with what you expect to find. Good examples of tournament set-up such as those in Qatar and the UAE need to become the models for others to follow. But we also need to work on a financially sustainable way of doing it because few countries possess the wealth of the Arab nations."

At the time this interview took place in March, it was a case of three down and three to go for Alan. Next up is the Women's U20 World Cup in Costa Rica in August, followed by the Women's U17 World Cup in India in October, before the main event in Qatar in November and December.

In between the tournaments, there will be ongoing inspections for the 2023 tournaments, including the Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and the Men's U20 World Cup in Indonesia.

Work to level the playing field will go on.

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