When most football fans talk about World Cup football, they are usually referring to the men's event held once every four years. Beyond one of the most significant sporting events on the planet, what many people won't realise is that FIFA host four World Cups every year. The age group World Cups, as they are referred to, are held once every two years and age group finals for male and female teams are held at Under 17 and Under 20 level.
FIFA also host the Club World Cup annually, although this is about to be changed to a 24-team tournament to be held in its new format for the first time in 2021. FIFA also manage the Olympic football tournament on behalf of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with the next edition in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympic games.
The U20s World Cup in Poland and Women's World Cup in France were the first two to be fully covered by the pitch management team, and the preparations, challenges and successes have profoundly influenced the process going forward to future tournaments.
The latest men's U20 World Cup in Poland was played throughout May and June 2019. The tournament is a 24-team event and was played in the Polish cities of Gydnia, Tychy, Bydgoczsc, Bieska-Biala, Lublin and Lodz. Each host city stadium was supported by four training sites within a 40-minute drive of the stadium.
The U20 tournament is seen as a youth tournament in the eyes of the majority of hosts and, as such, host countries tend to opt for smaller stadium venues with a capacity of 15,000 to 20,000 to ensure they are full and create a good atmosphere. Alan agrees with the stadium approach, but where the FIFA pitch team has run into issues with this mindset is host countries opting for training sites outside the professional game that provide a lower starting infrastructure.
Alan explained: "The game has moved on significantly in the past six years or so, with many of the players eligible to play in this tournament already making their full debuts in the world's major leagues. Players with transfer values running to tens of millions of pounds, euros or dollars who play and train on some of the best pitches on the planet expect the same standards when they come to a World Cup. We need to provide that for them because the tournament should be valued by everyone involved."
Pitch testing in Lodz / John Mantrip from Tottenham shows how mowing should be done
"The process of pitch selection has been one of the areas we've become more involved in since the recent restructure. Very often, the entire selection of training sites has been dictated by the location and quality of the hotel for the teams. FIFA guidelines for selection of training sites currently states training pitches should be no more than a 20-minute drive by coach. I've been heavily involved with the tournaments in Poland and France, and pitch options in several cities were limited."
"Sometimes, we'll drive past pitches in-between venues that are better than what we've just looked at, so we're looking at extending the radius time up to 30-minutes. The initial selection of sites now involves the bid evaluation team, FIFA accommodation, FIFA team services and the pitch team. The input from all four teams gets considered and, hopefully, it'll lead to the most practical choices being made."
Once the final selection of training sites has been made, there is a full inspection of the pitches that are going to be used. This is now a very detailed inspection involving FIFA's lead consultants, iTurf Management Limited, under the watchful eye of chief technical officer, Andy Cole, who works closely with Alan. Andy has vast experience of how FIFA worked in the past having worked at the 2010 finals in South Africa, the 2014 finals in Brazil and 2018 in Russia as well as several youth World Cups. Through that experience, he has been able to assess and relay what he felt was missing in the pitch delivery process.
The Lodz Stadium ahead of the U-20 World Cup
To give more time for pitch assessment, Alan has taken the pitch inspection visits out of the main schedule because he felt there wasn't enough time to carry out a full evaluation. Whilst iTurf focus on matters under the surface and carry out critical tests for hardness, moisture, traction, density and level, Alan focuses on the venue's equipment, staffing levels and experience and other essential infrastructure. As each venue visit is completed, all the notes are compiled into a visit report before moving onto the next one. The team will typically look at one stadium pitch and four training pitches in a day, with at least one and a half hours spent at each venue.
Once the first full inspection is completed, Alan returns to Zurich to evaluate all the reports. Pitches are scored and rated for risk in an easy to identify traffic light system. Budget costs are also put against each venue and, gradually, a picture emerges of what the pitch delivery looks like.
Each FIFA Tournament has a director from the competitions department who will control the tournament budget. Each department involved in the delivery of the tournament will report its initial findings to the director and then agree the budget going forward.
During the inspection, Alan will have tried to gauge the skill set of the ground teams who will have to deliver the pitches under the guidance of his team. Part of the new build-up to the finals involves an expanded training workshop brought in by Alan.
Delegates being shown how to set a pedestrian mower / Andy Cole takes delegates through pitch testing
"Previously, the pitch element was delivered in a 45-minute PowerPoint which was simply not enough," he explained. "It's not till you move outside the UK you realise how skilled and professional our grounds teams are here."
"We decided to deliver a new format of pitch workshop, which we did in both Poland and France, with the main aim being able to bring all the grounds teams together. One of the objectives of my new role is to raise the quality of educational opportunities for grounds teams who work in the 211 member associations around the World. For those who are hosting tournaments, it offers me an instant chance to start that process."
"It's amazing how many guys in Poland and France we found who had never been shown how to set up or use a pedestrian cylinder mower correctly. We even had some who had never been properly shown how to mark out. The new delivery has been really well received because we've combined classroom education with the practical side. To bring consistency to each tournament, we've written a technical handbook that gets translated into the host nation's language, and that means we're all literally reading from the same page."
Andy Jackson from Stoke City shows how a centre circle should be marked / GrasPro clinic in progress
All of the work that was put into the U20's tournament was simultaneously put into the successful Women's World Cup in France. Unusually, the two tournaments overlapped by two weeks meaning, at one point, Alan and his team had a total of 79 pitches under their guidance between the two countries. This challenge had been anticipated, and a decision was made to monitor pitches using the data collection system, GrasPro.
The Iceland based company's data collection product appealed to FIFA because it is easy to use, and pitch information is not shared with any third parties. "As well as delivering the two tournaments in Poland and France, work is already underway on future tournaments," Alan explained. "We had work going on in Qatar as well as starting the build-up to the U20 finals in Brazil, so having the ability to capture and manage all the data is massive for us. The GrasPro team were also present at the workshops showing the grounds teams how to navigate around the site, and each team's site is in their own language making use of the site easy for them."
Introducing new pitch selection criteria, education and technology has been done to rectify negative feedback FIFA received in the past. The latest edition of the Women's World Cup was under pressure from the start following criticism during the 2015 finals in Canada when all the games were played on synthetic turf. FIFA was determined that the 2019 finals would be remembered for all the right reasons and create a platform from which the Women's game can progress. The French finals were hosted in the nine cities of Le-Havre, Rennes, Reims, Valenciennes, Paris, Grenoble, Nice, Lyon and Montpellier. Alan is in no doubt that having a hybrid pitch of one type or another in all the stadia was a massive boost. In total, there were four different hybrid systems used, including GrassMaster, Mixto, AirFibre and PlayMaster and, for Alan, they all made a valuable contribution along with the turf professionals who were maintaining them.
Jonathan Calderwood's Parc des Prince pitch in Paris
"The jewel in the crown was having the Parc des Princes in Paris under the management of Jonathan Calderwood for the opening game," Alan said. "I have known Jonathan for a long time and, in my opinion, he is one of the best and most professional groundsmen I have ever met. Now and again we get to work with some brilliant groundsmen and it makes our job a lot easier, but it also shows the importance of educating the less experienced groundsmen we work with."
"A major tournament equates to a lot of pitch hours and, to the teams, every hour they spend on grass counts. The 2019 Women's World Cup kicked off on the 7th June 2019 and concluded four weeks later on the 7th July with a total of 52 games in 9 stadia and over 700 pitch hours on 38 training pitches, bringing the overall tournament total to 983 hours and 45 minutes. To ensure those hours were successful, we had to prepare properly and be adaptable to conditions during the tournament."
"We were already halfway through the tournament in Poland, which had gone well for us despite it being the wettest spring in 60-years, when I moved to Paris for the Women's World Cup where we were having the hottest summer on record. The readiness tour undertaken ten days ahead of the French finals had shown some of the training sites were still a bit short and not quite up to standard, but I'd taken the precaution of lining up three contractors to step in at short notice to help get the pitches over the line. We knew from the monthly inspections where we might have some issues."
"It's a massive ask for some of the smaller venues used for weekly amateur football to suddenly have to facilitate a World Cup. That's why the build-up has been set up to try and cover all the bases. The inspections had also revealed that many of the training sites did not have any pedestrian mowing equipment. We've learned from this and, going forward, the readiness tour will take place one month out to allow more time for late corrections to be carried out."
A delivery of Dennis Premiers / Opening Ceremony preparations
On this occasion, to give the grounds teams the tools they needed, Alan asked iTurf to run a tender for the procurement of 37 pedestrian mowers. The successful bid came from Dennis, due in part to their established dealer network in France, and the 37 Premiers were duly built and delivered in time for the finals. The tournament process can often highlight issues, like those of the pedestrian mowers, but others come more unexpectedly.
The final phase of the Women's World Cup was played in Lyon. The venue was selected as it is home to French and European Women's Champions Lyon and is a hotbed for Women's football in France. This decision proved to be a good one as both semi-finals and final were played in front of capacity crowds, but one thing FIFA had not planned on was the Groupama Arena holding three concerts ahead of the finals. During discussions with the venue in the early part of the year, there had been no mention of concerts. A valuable lesson was learned by Alan here as FIFA had only stated in their contract an exclusivity period of 10 days. This left a window of three weeks at the end of the French league season which the club duly took advantage off. Two nights of Ed Sheeran and one night with Phil Collins meant the pitch that had played well all season had to be replaced.
This left seventeen days to lay a new pitch and grow it in. Alan explained: "From our side, I had to make sure the stadium picked a good system that would remain stable under play. I had already looked at stitching a natural turf, but the stadium wanted something more flexible to fit their business model. After discussions, they opted for PlayMaster."
Opening Ceremony in progress / Pitch watering ahead of the game
"With such a short timeframe, we had to make sure everything went right. We provided a pitch venue manager to work closely with the Lyon stadium team to ensure everything was set for the turf arriving from Milan."
"Happily, everything went well, and the pitch played well. As well as being able to take the effects of the two semi-finals and the final, the pitch also had to take the rehearsals for the awards ceremony and closing flag ceremony. To help its cause, rehearsals were carefully scheduled to reduce foot traffic and any potential damage."
Having stadia from the French Ligue 1 for the finals was a big help for the FIFA team. They were already well equipped and staffed, allowing the necessary funding to be invested in the training sites. Several had already had significant tournament experience from the 2016 Euro finals held in France. The 52-game programme was well delivered, and feedback from teams has been starkly different from the 2015 finals in Canada.
Poland and France have been the first two tournaments for Alan and have been instrumental in forming what a tournament delivery will look like going forward. After detailed debriefings sessions in Zurich, the lessons learned, and corrections made have already been applied for the U17s World Cup, which takes place throughout October and November in Brazil.
The Women's World Cup Final pitch at Olympique Lyonnais - seventeen days after a new PlayMaster surface was laid