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World Cup Legacy: Grass is Good

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Now more than two months removed from Brazil, many are reflecting on the success of this year’s World Cup and what legacy it will leave for years to come.  As the World Cup concluded, soccer fans immediately turned focus to the transfer window and upcoming professional seasons in Europe. European leagues have kicked off the 2014-2015 campaign as well as the Campeonato Brasilerio Serie A, hosting matches on the same World Cup venues from June and July. Little time has been left to discuss behind-the-scenes storylines that made the 2014 FIFA World Cup such a wild success.

Leading up to largest sporting event held every four years, most media attention focused on crime rates, transportation issues and stadium construction delays. Quickly overlooked were the actual fields where the world’s top 32 countries would compete.

FIFA selected 12 venues to host 64 World Cup games. By no surprise, each stadium was a natural grass surface. With so much emphasis worldwide on sports fields moving to artificial turf, why did soccer’s governing body choose to go with grass?

Simply put – the players love it.

“I’ve always enjoyed competing at the highest level on natural grass and I’m glad FIFA decided to go this route with all 12 World Cup venues,” says Matt Besler, Sporting KC and U.S. Men’s National Team defender. “I was very impressed with the playability and conditions in Brazil, especially how well the field drained in Recife for our final group stage match against Germany.”

So what made the 12 fields so great?

“All stadiums for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil were built using a sandy soil profile to improve drainage and reduce organic matter accumulation,” said Roberto Gurgel, executive director of research for Sod Solutions and member of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) recently told Recreation Management. “Celebration Bermudagrass was the variety used on the majority of the playing surfaces, coming from the closest sod farm for each particular stadium.”

A Sao Paulo native, Gurgel helped developed the type of grass used in five of the 12 stadiums, mostly in venues with a lot of shade. This included the Maracanã, host of the World Cup Final on July 13. Prior to the tournament, the Maracanã had already hosted 45 games so it was given plenty of time to test for safety, playability and recuperation. Celebration is known for being very aggressive and recovers quickly from wear and tear.

Bermuda Tifway 419 sod was used in six other stadiums and required less maintenance. Even though the World Cup took place during Brazil’s winter, several venues experienced hot temperatures and excessive amounts of rain but they held up nicely and recovered in time for the next match.

Natural grass is where the beautiful game was meant to be played. It could be easily taken for granted by the best soccer players in the world, who make several million dollars a year competing for their club and country, but gratitude is often seen at the highest level.

For each World Cup match, 22 players and officials sprinted across the grass field as upwards of 70,000 spectators chanted with passion. Camera crews captured players blessing the finely manicured fields before entering the game or sliding on their knees after scoring a goal. Millions of people around the world were treated to the premier level of the game on lush, green fields.

In the United States, the 2014 Final in Brazil set a TV record with 26.5 million viewers. The growth of the sport and increasing TV viewership has put added pressure on the sports turf managers to produce a safe field and visually-appealing everyday.

Advancements in sports turf research and technology, as well as sharing best practices through organizations such as the STMA, have allowed the industry to be on the cutting-edge. Knowledge of the trade and collegiate educational opportunities in turf grass management continue to grow around the world.

At the end of the day, the number one goal for sports field managers’ is safety.

“The priority when maintaining natural grass athletic fields at any level of play is to provide safe, playable fields for athletes,” states Brad Fresenburg, Ph.D., University of Missouri Turfgrass Professor. “Turfgrass growth and health is influenced by many factors. Understanding and applying essential field care practices – such as aeration, fertility and pest management – contribute to a safe playing surface for athletes.”

If you speak with a professional soccer player about natural grass and the work of sports turf managers, you will probably get a similar, positive reaction.

“Natural grass fields take much more energy to prepare,” says Graham Zusi, Sporting KC and U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder. “The time spent preparing them is much appreciated by the players, as the touch and feel on grass is more consistent.”

Elite female players have taken it a step further. Several on the U.S. Women’s National Team are protesting the use of artificial turf in next summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. They drafted a petition and garnered support from more than 4,000 people and 50 national team players from 12 countries. They also have begun legal proceedings to sue FIFA for gender discrimination if forced to compete on synthetic fields.

The discussion is relevant to today’s equality of male and female players. Case in point, the World Cup and Champions League finals have never been played on artificial turf. In the United States, 15 of 19 Major League Soccer stadiums are natural grass.

The data and trends show players prefer to compete on a natural surface. The safety of players is paramount. Grass is good and it’s here to stay.

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Phil McQuade is Director of Turf, Colorado Rapids and a Professional Facilities Representative, Sports Turf Managers Association

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