19 It's football Jim, but not as we know it

It's football Jim, but not as we know it

By Dave Saltman

On the 11th November 2004 UEFA made a landmark decision allowing football clubs to install the latest approved artificial pitches in their stadiums. With it, the rulebook changed, to permit major competitive games to also be played on these surfaces.

Over the coming years, football supporters will see the game, that we all know and love, change beyond recognition because of decisions based on ill informed and incomplete research as well as naivety and greed.

For many years FIFA and UEFA have been asked to look at the improvements made by the synthetic manufacturers in carpet production. In fact since the days of QPR, Preston and Luton these manufacturers have invested heavily with research and development to provide the 3rd generation systems that are now being approved by footballs governing bodies.

The criteria set down by FIFA and UEFA is that these artificial surfaces should emulate the playing qualities of natural grass. Approval is based on artificial surfaces meeting a number of tests that demonstrate similar characteristics to natural turf in terms of 'ball roll', traction and speed. The current testing methods will allow the widespread integration of these surfaces into the game.

What the manufacturers and footballing bodies seem to disregard, is the fact that these artificial surfaces still provide burn injuries when players enter tackles. Players are uncomfortable playing on a synthetic surface and will not play their natural game. There is less contact and players are far less likely to commit themselves to tackling an opposing player because of fear of injury.

On natural grass pitches, even on bare and worn surfaces, players don't think about the tackle. They play their normal game and when they take a fall they have a confidence that the natural pitch will not hurt them. This does not happen when playing on a synthetic pitch. The players tense up to protect themselves and inevitably the game will become a non contact sport.

FIFA and UEFA state that they want football to remain the global No1 sport, but it became the top sport because of its diversity, on a standard synthetic surface, the best teams will always come out on top, making giant killing acts a thing of the past. Home advantage will be all but negated and the opportunity for smaller clubs to progress in cup competitions or even up the leagues will become even harder. The FA Cup will no longer hold its sparkle and will be dominated by the top clubs entering each round.

Not only are FIFA and UEFA approving the new surfaces but they are also providing hundreds of millions of pounds in grants to enable venues the world over to install them. Neither FIFA nor UEFA seem interested in providing equally vast sums of money to improve existing natural turf surfaces across the world. Surely as we move forward in this eco-friendly age, priorities should be to retain and further improve all things naturally green.

The rolling, synthetic industries band wagon, proclaims all day long play, low running costs and a standardised surface, all welcome news indeed to cash starved clubs. However these statements should be regarded as ambiguous when the options are weighed up equally.

FIFA's own quality concept for artificial turf states the benefits of these surfaces. They claim that they are unaffected by weather, ideal for covered stadia, offer easy maintenance and low maintenance costs, can be used for a variety of potential uses, an improvement in constant all year round playing conditions and that fewer playing fields will be required because of the ability to play on one artificial surface 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

However synthetic surfaces are affected by weather, and in cold conditions will freeze quicker than natural turf. To retain perfect playing conditions, synthetic surfaces still require an underground heating system and contrary to the synthetic manufacturers claims irrigation also needs to be installed. Water is needed to cool down the surface that in hot weather can register temperatures twice that of a natural turf counterpart. Water is also required to keep the dust particles down in the turf pile. Some of these dust particles are from the rubber infill or to be exact processed car tyres. Where else are we going to put the car tyre mountain? Land fill sites reject tyres for dumping and incineration costs are expensive, what better way to use them up than chop them into a fine crumb and introduce them into playing surfaces for the children!

On this planet there are literally a handful of covered stadia that are inhospitable to growing natural grass. The vast majority of venues are more than capable of sustaining grass growth and recovery between games. The venue that FIFA and UEFA repeatedly put forward as a good reason for artificial turf is the Amsterdam Arena in Holland, the home of Ajax. The Arena was originally built as a venue for concerts and other non-football events and even now hosts twice as many non-sports events as football. Their hope is to increase the use of the stadium to around 125 events a year, only 27 of which would be football matches. In similar stadia such as the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and the Parken stadium in Copenhagen, good pitch management has removed the reasons for switching to artificial surfaces. Where there are poor surfaces around the world, FIFA and UEFA would be better employing the talents of British Groundsmen and Agronomists to improve the quality of these natural surfaces.

FIFA want Africa to host the 2010 World cup Finals and cited the hot climate as too harsh to grow and maintain grass. Recently an English Premier League Head Groundsman was invited by the Football Association in equatorial Ghana to offer some advice on improving the dust bowl surfaces they had at their main stadia. Within three months, the pitches looked magnificent, with good healthy grass born out of a little educated advice, some fertiliser, water and regular mowing. In fact the warm season grasses that were planted are positively thriving in the environment. It just needed some expert advice to improve the situation.

In the UK the difference between natural surfaces from the seventies and eighties to the modern day do not compare. Advancements in machinery, techniques and products as well as an excellent educational system have improved the quality of natural grass surfaces to those we know today. Unfortunately, with the exception of the USA and Australia these advances haven't been universally shared, hence the current problems.

The construction of an artificial surface costs in the region of £350-£400,000, a similar sum to a state of the art natural surface. It is able to host far more playing hours than a natural surface, but who is going to play on the surface for all these hours. There is a limit on players within any specific catchment area. In the darker months and evenings, floodlighting is required and local residents may well complain about additional light pollution as well as the noise from all day long facility use. Local authorities may well respond to local opinion by refusing licences for the extra stadium usage.

The requirements set out by UEFA and FIFA for an artificial surface to be approved are based on tests carried out at the start of its life. Without regular maintenance, these surfaces soon degenerate and the likelihood is that after a short period of time the surface will no longer meet the recommended standards. Therefore a reasonable level of maintenance is needed to provide the longevity of the surface. This includes daily litter picking and brushing not forgetting weed control, irrigation and the disinfecting of the surface. For surfaces used daily, a rejuvenation of the infill is now recommended annually as well. The costs of the annual maintenance operations including the labour may well top £45,000 per season.

Add to this the guesstimated lifespan of the artificial surface. Manufacturers are suggesting 10 years, although the more astute believe that a high usage surface may last 5-6 years only.

Based on a ten-year life span, it is prudent to budget approximately 10% of the initial build costs each year for the replacement of the surface at the end of its natural life (so to speak). Once installed, the maintenance costs of the surface will rise to around £80,000 per annum to maintain and renew, a significantly higher cost than the maintenance of a natural turf pitch.

Not included in these figures is the cost of dumping the spent 'carpet' at the end of its life. As stated earlier the rubber infill is an unwelcome visitor at landfill sites. So what do you do with 9000 square metres of woven polypropylene?

Supporters of these pitches seem to forget that the replacement of natural turf with synthetic turf will have an effect on the environment. After all grass lives and breaths. It takes approximately 11 tons of plastic fibre and 80 tons of rubber to make one artificial pitch.

There is also an environmental argument, which may not appeal to accountants worried about the bottom line.

Grass is one of the largest producers of oxygen and an important fixer of carbon dioxide in the soil. One grass pitch provides more oxygen than two acres of forest.

Each acre of natural grass fixes between 3.0-4.5 tons of CO2. This process is very important for limiting global warming. In opposition to this, a lot of energy is required for the production of artificial turf fibres, resulting in an increase of CO2 in the air.

A grass pitch harbours beneficial bacteria and organisms that naturally break down and remove bodily fluids such as blood, sweat and saliva. These bodily fluids on an inert, irregularly disinfected surface will help to spread diseases, particularly into grazes and cuts caused from sliding tackles.

A natural grass pitch helps to cool the environment on hot days, research in the USA shows that an artificial surface measured a temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit on a day when air temperatures reached 90 degrees. Are FIFA and UEFA suggesting that players will be able to perform to the best of their abilities for 90 minutes on what is effectively a sauna. Indeed, as the Kenyan FA's president recently stated, 'hot temperatures do not make playing on artificial turf welcoming.' So in hot weather and for professional games the surface requires watering just like a natural pitch. The problem is that the water evaporates and is wasted on a synthetic surface, whereas it is utilised and benefits the plant on a natural turf pitch.

In cold climates, particularly clubs in countries above the Arctic Circle, maintaining grass proves difficult when there is no light for six months of the year. However there is proven technology in the form of UV lighting rigs that enables the growth, establishment and recovery of grass species, even in sub zero temperatures.

Artificial turf manufacturers claim the synthetic surfaces can be used between -20 °C and +50°C making it suitable for use in cold climates and hot climates, but what do they recommend you do with snow? Cleaning the pitch each time is probably not an option, so an undersoil heating system would need to be installed. In times of heavy snow, heating systems are unlikely to be effective.

Synthetic surfaces are also just as liable to freeze as natural grass. Certainly synthetic pitches used at various football academy facilities have banned players from using icy surfaces.

Stadia are looking to maximise profits with the introduction of concerts and other non-sport events. Usually good liaison between the Groundsman and event organisers ensures a natural grass pitch will survive admirably after being covered for a number of days. Heavy vehicles, flooring and staging can leave indentations that can be relieved with standard aeration. What happens to a synthetic surface if the surface is depressed following a non-football event? What happens if there was a spillage of hydraulic oil, fuel or other toxic liquid? Quality repairs to a large area become costly and cannot be undertaken in a few hours, days or maybe even weeks.

Natural grass is the professional's preferred choice. It is the product that UEFA and FIFA have asked the synthetic companies to emulate. 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 stadia are losing money, then why are there not other areas where they can make savings? 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, its skill, athleticism and bravery. If the game is played on synthetic turf, it will become non-competitive and as sterile as the field of play.

Perhaps FIFA and UEFA want our soccer players dressed like American footballers playing a very different game.
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