The benefits of natural grass
By Dave Saltman
Following up on the second conference hosted by Stadia in Berlin I am putting together some of my thoughts following the attendance of seminars and the numerous conversations that I had with the many delegates who attended.
I have circulated a brief to about 60 industry representatives in the hope that they will add comments and any factual evidence that will support the benefits of natural grass. Hopefully together we can provide a united front. Looking at the advances in synthetic turf, we as an industry need to promote the benefits of natural turf. For me, the criteria that FIFA/UEFA have asked the synthetic industry to follow, is to emulate the playing characteristics of natural turf. Why then do they not provide funding to further improve natural turf? The sums of money being made available for funding synthetic installations is disproportionately high compared to the amount of money that would be required for research and development on new seed cultivars, rootzones, drainage etc.
On collection of everybody's comments I will re-write and re-circulate, again for comments prior to finalising a document that can be published and circulated to the trade press, the national press and international press. It will also be forwarded to FIFA, UEFA, all participating country FA's and other appropriate organisations.
At last year's conference the stance taken by FIFA was that the World Cup 2010 will be played in Africa, and therefore the climate would be inhospitable for natural grass.
Clearly, taking notes from Frank Boahene, a little bit of advice and direction showed that a combination of warm season grasses, water, nutrition and expertise, the African climate is very much suited towards natural grass. Indeed, as the Kenyan FA's president stated, hot temperatures do not make playing on artificial turf welcoming. It was also an interesting footnote to see that the synthetics require watering as well, particularly for the higher football standards, so the issue of water requirement is the same.
I understand why the football associations in countries such as Sweden and Norway, who have some clubs playing above the Arctic Circle, want to introduce synthetic surfaces. With the best will in the world, grass is not going to grow very well when there is 24 hours of darkness for six months of the year. I also understand that there are a few stadiums in the world that are extremely inhospitable and again do not lend themselves to growing grass effectively. However the improvements made in low level UV lighting systems have proved effective in low light conditions and there is no doubt that grass is encouraged to grow freely even in the darkest coldest areas under these lighting systems.
In Holland, the Amsterdam Arena is hell bent on installing an artificial carpet, just as soon as the Dutch FA give the go ahead. This is based on the fact that the pitch is currently re-turfed four to five times each year and the costs of installation would be recouped inside just one season. They currently host around 70 events and want to increase the event calendar to 125 uses of the stadium per year. On current statistics only 26 events are for football, which begs the question of the stadium's effective use for football.
More importantly for me though was that a similar type venue, the Parken stadium in Denmark, has only re-turfed their pitch once in five years. The FC Copenhagen pitch is a good example where an experienced Groundsman can liase well with his employer to allow multiple use and still provide an exceptional playing surface.
If there were a concerted effort to provide education, and a small amount of funding, all natural grass pitches would improve considerably.
It annoys me to see certain speakers include slides of kids and professionals alike playing on substandard surfaces. I could, like all of you take officials from FIFA and UEFA to countless playing facilities in the UK and abroad and show them excellent natural grass pitches that perform admirably week in and week out.
The statistics that were presented to us by one of the speakers at this years conference was that a club who installed a 3rd generation carpet would have to put aside approximately £15,000 per annum to cover the cost of this carpet being replaced at the end of it's useful life. This figure did not include annual maintenance costs and rejuvenation costs of the infill materials. Presumably this figure was arrived at, based on at least a ten-year life cycle.
The case argued by the Amsterdam Arena was that an event or concert or a number of events could be performed, with the staging and flooring then removed overnight for a football match the next day. However there is not one synthetic company that appears able to guarantee the integrity of their playing surfaces after 400 tonne staging structures have been placed on top. I'd also be keen to see what happens if a heavy object is dropped onto the surface, or a scaffold tube punctured the surface or if there were indentations created after the sheer weight of a stage, cherry picker or other heavy machine had been on the surface. Synthetic surfaces I presume cannot be forked to take out compaction or top dressed/turf doctored/re-turfed as a quick repair.
On the same tack, I replaced a piece of turf in between the football league games at the Millennium Stadium this May that had been badly burnt by a firework display. Obviously the damage was contained to the immediate area, because the grass isn't combustible, but this process wouldn't be so easy on a synthetic surface particularly at short notice and the chances of a larger area catching alight would be dramatically increased.
The artificial companies are selling their products based on the ability to play 24/7. However there are local issues with noise and light pollution from facilities wishing to host matches.
FIFA/UEFA cite hockey as a model that works very well, however hockey was and is a non-contact sport. If professional football is played on synthetic surfaces then most people believe that football will become a non-contact sport and will no longer be the game that everybody knows and loves.
Artificial pitches have great qualities in terms of bounce, ball speed and traction but they still burn and scar, forcing players to avoid sliding and committing themselves to important tackles.
In America the NFL had almost entirely gone over to synthetic surfaces but has reverted back to natural turf because of injuries and player preference as well as to provide a more natural game. If all professional soccer is to be played on artificial surfaces then we will also see the demise of our own FA Cup competition, because giant killing spectacles will be unlikely to occur again.
There are also a large number of environmental issues. How much energy is used in producing these carpets? Where will these surfaces be disposed of at the end of their useful life? It's easy for the artificial companies to say that they can be recycled, but the reality is the mix of rubber particulates and sand in a carpet pile will not be easily recyclable. A problem already found with rootzone soils and Desso re-inforcement.
As far as I am aware, the rubber used from shredded car tyres is actually carcinogenic and can cause respiratory problems. This is seen as a problem, particularly for players in hotter climates where the surface would warm up and release more unwelcome gases.
As we all know grass produces oxygen, and makes for a healthy environment. The bacteria and organisms that occur naturally in a grass sward and soil type profile readily break down and remove bodily fluids such as sweat, blood and saliva. On a synthetic pitch these fluids would not be broken down by bacteria and can lead to infection and the spread of disease.
A natural grass pitch cools down an environment even in hot weather; a synthetic surface will actually accentuate the temperatures.
Natural grass is the preferred choice, it is the product that UEFA and FIFA have asked the synthetic companies to emulate-so why haven't they just invested their money into improving the product that everyone knows and loves? It is a cop out driven by greed.
If stadiums are losing money then why isn't there a wage cap on players. If FIFA/UEFA are looking at ways to keep the game number one, then surely they should be tackling far more important issues that cost the game so much. Football has been the number one global sport because of its diversity. If the game is played on synthetic turf, it will become as sterile as the field of play.
If you would like to add your support to natural grass, please respond underneath or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. We would like to send out the finalised paper with attached names of support, so don't delay