Less than a year from now, the culmination of years' worth of work will be played out in front of a global audience during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The build-up to the tournament has been far from conventional, starting with the climatic conditions the games are played in through to the Covid-19 pandemic that has shifted a lot of the later work online.
Mower training in Douala, Cameroon
Going into September 2021, preparations for the tournament have reached a critical point where all the new pitches and equipment procured to maintain them was fully tested during the FIFA Arab Cup to be held in Qatar in December 2021. The event was used as the full test event for the World Cup. A match schedule set out to similar times as the main event was followed, testing everyone and everything connected to the tournament.
Since September, nearly all the pitches in the stadiums have been stitched and have had vacuum and ventilation systems added to them. As FIFA Pitch Management Manager, Alan Ferguson, explains, these technologies, coupled with a comprehensive range of equipment, will ensure FIFA delivers the best group of pitches ever assembled for a World Cup.
"I am really excited about where we are now because it's been a tough two and half years, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
"One of the main deliverables now, for myself and the team, is to ensure the 477 strong grounds teams that will deliver the pitches for the tournament fully understand what is expected of them and understand how to get the best out of the equipment and new technologies that have been installed."
"The recent workshop delivered in Qatar from the 6th to the 9th September was FIFA's biggest single pitch-focused workshop ever organised. The workshop was held in the magnificent Al Bayt stadium, one of eight ready to host the 2022 finals."
Grinding clinic (left) and Bernhard's Steve Nixon presenting in Al Bayt
"We aimed to bring together a key speaker from each supplier to deliver a presentation, then carry on to deliver a series of practical clinics. The workshop programme has been built up since I took up my position back in 2018. The larger tournaments now demand bigger and more detailed workshops. When I joined FIFA, one of the five key deliverables around my job was to improve workshops and the educational delivery around them. We have worked hard to date to get the tournament workshops right, and I believe we are getting there with them, and Qatar is another milestone along the way."
"In Qatar, the pitch maintenance is delivered by four companies. Al Nakheel, SAIC, AGME and Pergola, along with the Aspire team number involved in the pitch delivery."
"With all pitches in the World Cup stadiums now installed with hybrid stitching, vacuum and ventilation systems, as well as grow lights, we have a good idea what the programme should look like. We want it to encompass everything from mowing and line marking to setting up the lights and I think, to do that, it is really important to get the manufacturers who make these products involved."
To give all those attending an in-depth experience, Alan decided to split the general maintenance part of the workshop over two days, and with each day seeing a percentage of each company's workforce attend. The main aim is to instil the one team approach and encourage networking and an exchange of knowledge that can see the pitch objectives achieved.
The workshop on grow lights was moved to a day on its own. SGL, who provided the lights in Doha, already delivered showcases, and Alan felt it was a no-brainer to add a showcase to the workshop programme.
Starting at 9.00am, Steve Nixon opened the workshop from Bernhard and Company, focusing on grinding and the need to prepare your cylinder properly. Each stadium has Bernhard grinders in them as well units at the company's Qatari dealer HQ.
Al Bayt Stadium - Workshop Host
Hydro Turf, who handle several machines in Doha, will support the mowing operation from their new premises in the North of Doha. Their role throughout the build-up and during the tournament is to maintain mowers from any stadium that is unable to do so themselves. With games coming every 48 hours over the group stage, replacement machines have to be immediately available.
Toby Clarke, who represented Dennis Mowers at the event, covered best practice, maintenance, and delivered an in-depth look at the new electric Premier machines used on the match pitches. The introduction of new electric machinery is an important aspect of FIFA carbon-neutral aims and highlights the need for up-to-date workshops that are constantly being adapted as new technology is introduced.
Alan and Andy Cole from iTurf, the tournament appointed agronomist, then delivered a joint presentation on the FIFA requirements, with everything from pitch testing to line marking is explained to the delegates.
A lunch and networking opportunity then followed before Russell Latham from Premier Pitches, leading exponents of hybrid maintenance, explained how the hybrid fibre needs to be maintained throughout the tournament, before the delegates split into five groups for the practical sessions.
For Alan, gathering leading industry figures from the United Kingdom and America together is a significant step forward in turf education and will give the World Cup pitches the best chance of success and leave a lasting legacy from the tournament.
"The workshop aimed to give the local grounds teams as much knowledge on the new technologies as possible in one week," Alan begins. "The combination of practical clinics and theory sessions work really well and, by hosting the workshop in Al Bayt stadium, we can demonstrate things in the exact environment everyone will be working in."
"We had Steve from Bernhard delivering a theory session in one area and Hydro Turf holding a clinic in the workshop at the same time. It's a very engaging environment for the people attending, and I think that's important at an event like this because we want everyone to be invested in the process, and preparing them for it is the best way I think we can do that."
Keith Kent leading the line marking clinic
"Mixing the theoretical and practical aspects is very important, and having people like Keith Kent, who is well known for his time at Manchester United and Twickenham, taking practical sessions out on the pitch is great. He has the experience that needs to be passed on to other groundsmen because he's got it through years of work, and it'll be invaluable to the people attending when they are in the thick of a tournament."
"Keith was doing line marking for us, and it's so crucial now with VAR and goal-line technology that the lines are perfect. Gone are the days when you could get away with lines being a few millimetres out here and there because, when the Technology Team put the lines on your TV screen to show offside or goal-line technology to determine whether the ball has crossed the line or not, any discrepancy in the lines is clearly highlighted."
"For me, one of the workshop highlights was the session on the vacuum and ventilation system. The session was presented by Steve Wilson from Bernhard, who represents Sub Air in Europe. While Steve was unable to be at the event in person, he demonstrated the flexibility of the system from New York by showing delegates how to operate it remotely which is a positive of that system."
"Having all the eight stadiums fitted with vacuum and ventilation systems working in conjunction with the HVAC stadium cooling has given us the temperature control above and below the ground essential for success in growing grass in the desert. For us, we were able to use these sessions to show everyone how it works and why it is so essential."
Whilst the build-up to the World Cup in 2022 is taking centre stage and is now in full swing, it's not all about Qatar for Alan. In 2021, FIFA started a support programme to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) which has required immediate attention in the lead up to the African Cup of Nations.
The aim of the programme is simple: to improve the build-up and delivery of the continent's biggest tournament as well as helping the fifty-five Member associations that makeup CAF improve their stadium and pitch facilities.
Mower training and Alan Ferguson in conversation in Douala, Cameroon
The delayed 2021 tournament will be hosted in Cameroon from the 9th January to the 6th February in 2022. Alan already made the first inspection back in May and one of the key requirements to come from that inspection was the delivery of five workshops in the five host cities.
The tournament will be hosted in the Capital Yaoundé (two stadiums), Baffoussam (one stadium), Garoua (one stadium), Limbe (one stadium) and Douala (one stadium). The project team from the FIFA side have been seconded to Cameroon to work with the local organising committee and the CAF team. A decision was taken to take the workshop to each of the five cities, which Alan fully supports.
"The grounds teams here have never had any form of proper or detailed pitch education, and by taking the workshop to them in their own stadiums, it gave us more one to one opportunities," Alan explains.
"As part of the support, twelve Dennis G860 mowers have been sent to Cameroon complete with cassettes. FIFA has also sent five line marking kits developed by Linemark UK and FIFA. The groundsmen in Cameroon need this support because you cannot expect them to produce pitches if they don't have the tools to do it. But making key equipment available is one thing; teaching the teams how to use it is another.
The Doha team
"The workshop model we've worked on and honed can be rolled out in other countries. That is why it was so essential for us to cater it to every level of experience. We are dealing with people with varying skill sets from one day to the next, but often the needs are the same. For example, some might never have used a vacuum and ventilation system before and need assistance with it, whereas some might never have used a proper pedestrian mower or line marker. For us, the challenge is making sure we don't miss anyone out and guarantee as best we can that, when we leave a country after a tournament, the standard of education within the groundsmen we've worked with is better."
"Whilst excellent progress has been made, the team have barely managed to get past the tip of the iceberg. The world is a big place, and the goal remains to reach all of our 211 member associations in the six Confederations. Particular attention will be focused on regions such as Asia and Africa to bring them up to a good standard in line with the other confederations."
"The team are already reaching out to educational partners and working with leading grounds managers to help spread the word and, hopefully, this is a programme that will continue to gather pace."
"Throughout 2022, I will be aiming to introduce a mixture of live workshops and online learning. There are plenty of good quality providers, and we certainly do not want to re-invent the wheel, but as the world governing body, I see our role to bring the educational providers and groundskeepers in need of the training together."
"From the workshops we have already held, I'm hoping to introduce a form of grant funding through the member associations. From here, those who do not have laptops or the facility to get online will have the same opportunity as anyone else. It seems crazy that here we are in 2021 and we are only now talking about rolling this out, but it is better late than never. Of course, this should have been done years ago, and we could discuss the rights and wrongs of this until the cows come home, but the important thing is there is now a structure within FIFA that can make this happen and a group of people who are both professional and passionate enough to make it succeed," Alan concludes