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Artificial turf controversy a constant in backdrop of Women's World Cup

Why is the Women’s World Cup being played on artificial turf?

The question has come up constantly during the tournament so far, nourished by commentators, social media, and the high-profile complaints of Abby Wambach, who called playing on turf “a nightmare.” By now, some are starting to express fatigue about the discussion, and Wambach has been criticized for making turf into an excuse for the fact that the U.S. performance so far has been a little shaky, especially compared to rivals like France and Germany.

The debate over turf is important, however, as a symptom of something much larger: the ongoing inequalities in support for women’s and men’s soccer programs globally. The artificial turf is a metaphor, a very visible and inescapable reminder many ways in which institutional forces continue to hold back the development of the women’s game, quite literally impacting its most brilliant and inspiring players.

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When Canada bid for the World Cup, five of the six venues it proposed be used in the tournament had artificial pitches rather than grass. The sixth, Moncton, was an exception: it had a grass field that was replaced before the tournament with artificial turf. Canada was the only nation to bid for the Women’s World Cup, which is one reason complaints about artificial turf, especially those coming from players on the rival U.S. team, have been met with irritation.

After all, if the U.S. or other countries had wanted to bid to host the tournament, and pay for grass fields, they could have done so.

Artificial turf is increasingly common on soccer pitches. Though it is more expensive to install than grass, it costs less to maintain over the long-term. That is why many institutions have chosen to use it, especially on fields that get heavy use. The turf boosters of the world, including the industry and FIFA, argue that it makes it possible to offer good playing surfaces to a maximum of players.

In a world often convinced that engineering technology can solve every problem, turf seems attractive: why painstakingly grow grass when you can make it in a factory? For a good dose of the industry’s defense of turf, just visit the Synthetic Turf Council page. They point out that synthetic turf has been used in several of the men’s U-17 and U-20 FIFA competitions. FIFA's medical staff used the data from one competition in Peru in 2005 to conclude that there is no significant difference in injury rates between grass and turf. Many of the players at the Women’s World Cup, furthermore, regularly play on turf in the U.S.-based National Women’s Soccer League.

But there are many players who dislike playing on turf, notably U.S. forwards Wambach and Sydney Leroux. Critics of turf note that it irritates and burns when you slide on it in a way that grass doesn’t. A team doctor for the U.S. women’s national team has cited additional physical costs associated with turf. As Richard Farrell has noted, the toll is not always immediately visible, but accumulate: due to the harder impact of turf during running and falls, they become more obvious as a tournament progresses.

And then there’s the rather absurd fact that sometimes artificial turf gets so hot that it actually melts shoes – a feature that you might reasonably assume would disqualify a product from serving as a soccer pitch.

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The debate is unlikely to be resolved definitively by a proliferation of studies, especially when those are sponsored by groups with a vested interest in a particular outcome. What is clear is this: at least until now, most high-level international soccer tournaments, notably the men’s World Cup, grass remains the norm. If during the past month you watched any of the Copa America or the men’s U-20 World Cup, you saw them playing on nice grass.

Even in the small, sometimes pretty empty, stadia of various parts of New Zealand where the U-20 tournament was played, it was deemed that the teenage boys deserved grass. Given this broader and very visible context, the fact that the premier tournament in women’s soccer was simultaneously being played on turf just feels instinctively to many as a kind of ongoing, visible symbol of disrespect.

Today, in large part as a result of the institutional stifling of women’s football throughout most of the 20th century, the vast majority of the leadership in global football is composed of men. That may be why, early on when the decision to use artificial turf was made, no one stopped for a moment and asked themselves: hey, wait a minute, isn’t it a bit sexist to have the women play on artificial turf when the men play on grass?

But even more telling is what happened when players petitioned FIFA to change their decision and then opted to sue to force a change. The suit brought together 81 players from 13 countries, who presented the choice to use artificial turf as a case of gender discrimination. There were, as Elizabeth Cotignola has written, many problems with the legal proceedings and the way the case was carried out. Still, it presented FIFA with a golden opportunity.

FIFA could have decided to ask the Canadian federation to provide grass pitches for the Women’s World Cup, and provided the funding to do so. It could then have presented the decision as proof of its often-stated commitment to fostering women’s participation in the global game. It would have gained some respect and credibility in the process.

I realize, of course, that imagining this–especially given everything else we know about FIFA’s leadership–is a bit like imagining that Sepp Blatter is actually Gloria Steinem. But that this is so hard to imagine is precisely the problem.

FIFA did more than fight the case in court. According to a number of players, the organization threatened retaliation against those who filed the suit. The message seems to have been sent down the chain to national federations: let the players know that if they keep up their protest, they might not get to play at all. You get the sense that once this process began, FIFA was intent on proving a point that such protest, especially coming from players of the women’s game, deserved not just refusal but punishment.

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Playing on turf is only one of many forms of inequality experienced by female players throughout the world, and in some ways a comparatively minor one. Teams from the Caribbean like Trinidad and Haiti receive so little support from their federations that they had to raise their own money just to be able to travel to qualifying games. Players in much of the world are paid little or nothing, working full-time jobs as they try and train for the highest levels of the competition.

As Shireen Ahmed has put it, “all women, the best players in the world, should not only play on grass but deserve to eat lunch too.”

But what is ultimately at stake, and what connects all these different levels of struggle, is the extent to which the institutions of global football listen–or don’t listen–to the voices of players and coaches from the women’s game.

Unless you believe that women’s sports are inherently inferior and less viable that men’s sports, the only way to explain the current inequality is as a result of institutional choices made in the past. As Jean Williams has recently described, for most of the 20th century women’s soccer was not sustained, but rather outlawed and held back, by most national federations and FIFA itself.

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The current situation of women’s football is in crucial ways the result of the decision made, starting in 1921 by the English FA, to exclude women from playing the game. That historical recognition is crucial at this point. FIFA and national federations need to not just to reverse those practices but to acknowledge, undo and repair their long-term effects. Having long held back the women’s game, they now doubly have the responsibility to support the women’s game fully rather than grudgingly.

Right now, no football federation in the world currently offers the same support for their men’s and women’s teams. Such inequalities in support for women’s and men’s soccer have become so ingrained that they now seem natural, even inevitable, to most. But soccer is a construction. It is what we make of it.

FIFA and the national federations are not corporations: they are non-profit organizations set up to be stewards of the global game. And we can demand of them that they operate according to ethics rather than profit. One simple way to do that would be to announce that, from now on, they will provide equal financial and institutional support to women’s and men’s soccer.

That this suggestion will seem unimaginable to many, and unacceptable to others, is a testament to how far we have to go.

Laurent Dubois is the author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (2010), and edits the Soccer Politics blog. His writings on soccer have appeared as part of the 2014 Roads and Kingdoms series “The Far Post.” He teaches at Duke University and can be followed on Twitter @Soccerpolitics