Octavi Creus, Grounds Manager of FC Barcelona, explains how modern technology, agronomy and a rescheduled La Liga season are affecting the pitches under his care during the Covid-19 crisis.
How long have you been working at FC Barcelona and what are your responsibilities at the club?
''After having worked for more than 30 years within the turf industry at football clubs and golf courses, I joined FC Barcelona in August 2017 as the new Grounds Manager. I'm responsible for the pitches at the Camp Nou Stadium, Stadium Johan Cruyff and the training centre. In addition, I'm managing the gardening of all the facilities and the coordination of all developments regarding the pitches and gardening of the huge ESPAI BARÇA project, FC Barcelona's new real estate treasure.''
Do you miss the football being played in the stadium?
''Yes, the football days and matchdays. Those are the most special days for me as a Grounds Manager. That's the finish line and the prize after lots of hard work.''
La Liga's intentions are to continue the 19/20 season in June and July this year and the 20/21 season quickly after. Does that make your life as a Grounds Manager harder?
''Yes, I would say that there are two big challenges. There's a high chance that La Liga matches resume in June and July, which is totally unusual in the Camp Nou Stadium. Normally, we never host games on the pitches in the summer season. We need to deliver top quality pitch throughout the summer, which means top quality pitch surface with high density, but also taking the biomechanical parameters into account, such as pitch hardness, torsion, rotational traction & elasticity. And last but not least, what is going to happen with the pitch in the beginning of September when the 20/21 La Liga season will start? Do we have time to do a renovation or do we have to start the new season with the old grass after heavy usage during summer months? I would say that is the biggest challenge. With the matches being played during summer time we will face a really difficult time.''
What have you done so far to prepare for these challenging times?
''We have overseeded the pitch with grass varieties that are more resistant to the difficult high temperatures. We continue to monitor and perform all kinds of analyses, such as soil analyses and plant analyses. The fact that we currently can't use any more products like fungicides and pesticides, as much as we used to in the past, makes the SGL advice with the weekly Assist reports even more important. All the advice we receive from the SGL agronomists will help us increase the pitch quality up to 120%, not just a 100%.''
What are the main risks when a lot of football matches are being played in summer time?
''Everyone knows that FC Barcelona is really strict about the use of the Camp Nou pitch during summer conditions. Normally in summer time absolutely no one is allowed on the pitch. We have to take into account that during this summer at least 22 guys will be using the Camp Nou pitch every two or three days, so the risk of any grass disease spreading is going to be huge. Because of this, monitoring what is happening on the pitch is crucial. The most important thing is to have as much information about the live growing conditions of the plant as possible. The monitoring equipment helps us to get full insight into the growing conditions from minute-to-minute. It tells me exactly what needs to been done on the pitch.''
Do you feel that data is essential to achieve a high quality pitch?
''Yes, I would say that achieving a top quality pitch without data is impossible. I believe that agronomical data is the future. Not even the future, it's the present!''
Why do you feel that data is essential?
''I believe in the use of big data. I'm always focussing on the input I receive from the complete monitoring system. We have to work with data to minimize any possible errors appearing on the pitch. At the end of the day and even during these tough times, the players will keep asking for a top quality surface. They will not accept a 7 out of 10 pitch, but a minimum of 9.5 or even a 9.8. Although, we know we'll face problems, I need to have the pitch under control and a good way to achieve this is taking a look into the parameters on the Portal and SGL's weekly reports.Every move we make needs to be based on science. Now is not the time to gamble and rely on feelings. We need to monitor the data to be objective and efficient in the decisions we make. Originally, I'm a biologist and an engineer, not a groundsman. My job is to control all the data and use it to delegate to my grounds staff what works need to be done on the pitch. I'm very thankful for my grounds staff, they have always been so important for me and especially over the last months. Their work is to be on the pitch at all times and they are my right hand. My role is also more of a scientific one.''
COVID-19 prevention at FC Barcelona
Do you have specific examples of how you use advice in order to maintain a high quality pitch?
''Regarding the UVC180, that's very clear. I'm receiving a disease forecast on a weekly basis with a certain percentage of disease pressure per disease. It's not my green fingers that tell me how many times I should be using the UVC machine. It's based on what SGL agronomist dr. Irene Vroegop tells me in the reports and the conversations I have with her. I can always completely rely on the advice I receive.
We have one UVC180 that was meant to be used in the stadium only. But now that the players have resumed training for the first time in months again, we will be using the UVC180 at the training facilities too. We have decided to use the UVC180 on both locations for fungus disease treatment as well as to lower the risks of infection of COVID-19 for the players. Within the club they do everything they can to play football again. UV-C light is widely used for disinfection in healthcare, so after consulting experts and discussing it internally, we also decided to use the UVC180 on the training pitches and surrounding areas for disinfection. The same goes for the pitch at Camp Nou.
Normally in summer, the UV-C light helps to control grass diseases. But the most important thing right now is to decrease the risk of COVID-19 infection. This is one of the many preventive measures taken at FC Barcelona.
Lastly, we have 6 turf coolers in the Camp Nou. The Camp Nou pitch is ten meters below street level, so there's a lack of air circulation and that can cause big problems, especially in high temperature periods. With the stadium being under such extreme conditions, we often need to use the turf coolers 24/7 in summer periods. However, economical factors also play a big role in making decisions on how long the turf coolers should be cooling the pitch. Agronomists give us advice on the amount of cooling hours per day for it to be both effective for the pitch as cost efficient.''
What is the biggest benefit that you receive from the Assist Advance + package?
''In the end, the amount of useful data that is coming from the agronomists' reports to make decisions is massive. All of this data that we receive on a weekly basis is crucial and plays a big part making the best decisions. I would say that this is the biggest benefit of the Assist Advanced + package. And especially now that we're forced to work more from distance, you just cannot do it without data.''
What does the rest of your week look like?
''It's going to be a really tough week, because more individual training will be completed by the first team players. We need to monitor and test everything very carefully, so when they come back to train again, the pitches are in excellent condition. It's not going to be easy, because conditions have changed. It's definitely a period with a lot of uncertainties, but we need the games back in the stadium.''
How the UVC180 stops viruses from spreading
The UVC180 has been specially developed to keep sports grass healthy, by breaking down the DNA of plant fungal diseases with UVC radiation treatment. Because of its applicable UV spectrum and high intensity, the UVC180 can also be used to disinfect sports pitches. The principle of killing viruses with UVC radiation is equal to killing bacterial and fungal infections. Because of the success of UVC radiation with previous coronaviruses, hospitals now also use this method to disinfect hospital rooms and facemasks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The size and operation of the UVC180 is specifically designed to treat football pitches in the most efficient and effective way, and is therefore ideal for disinfecting football pitches before and after training and games.
How does UVC stop viruses from spreading?
Viruses don't reproduce on their own. They have genetic material, either DNA or RNA, and they reproduce by attaching to cells and injecting their DNA.2 A molecule of DNA is made of two strands bound together by four bases, and an RNA molecule is generally single stranded with four bases. When biological organisms are exposed to UVC light in the range of 200 nm to 300 nm, the light penetrates through the cell wall and disrupts the molecules. Disrupted DNA or RNA cannot replicate, and cells that cannot replicate cannot infect.
What is UVC radiation?
Ultraviolet (UV) is a series of light frequencies, invisible to the human eye, which occurs naturally in solar radiation. There are three spectrums: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC has the shortest wavelengths (between 200 and 280 nm) and is completely absorbed into the atmosphere so it does not reach the surface of the earth. Because of its short wavelength, and therefore high energy, UVC is able to penetrate the cell walls and disrupt the DNA or RNA of micro-organisms such as fungi, bacteria and viruses.1
What do we know about the effects of UVC on COVID-19?
All bacteria and viruses tested to date respond to UVC disinfection. Some organisms are more sensitive to UVC disinfection than others, but all tested so far do respond at the appropriate doses. UV light, specifically between 240-280 nm (UV-C spectrum), inactivates at least two other coronaviruses that are near-relatives of the COVID-19 virus: SARS-CoV and MERSCoV.4 Research suggests it is possible that UVC radiation is able to kill COVID-19 if it is exposed to the concentrated UV ray in a certain amount of time and distance. The effectiveness of UVC radiation in practice depends on factors such as the exposure time and the ability of the light to reach the viruses in water, air and on surfaces. The effect of UV-C on COVID-19 is not yet proven, but the method has been effective to stop previous coronaviruses is the reason for hospitals to use UVC radiation to disinfect hospital rooms and face masks.
Effectivity of UVC treatment depends on the spectrum and the dosage. The UVC180 has a wavelength of 253.7 nm, of which research has proven to be the most effective on viruses, bacteria and fungi. The higher the intensity (W/m²) of the UVC radiation and the longer the irradiation time, the higher the UVC dose (J/m²) and thus the number of microorganisms that are damaged to such an extent that they can no longer divide. Under normal use, the UVC180 has an intensity of twice the dosage that is reported in the literature as being effective against coronaviruses.4 With this dosage, the UVC180 can desinfect a football pitch effectively within 1.5 hours, without harming the grass or the environment.