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FIFA President Sepp Blatter, right, and CSA President Victor Montagliani react to a photographer's directions following the opening press conference for the FIFA Women's Under 20 World Cup in Toronto, Ontario on Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. (PETER POWER/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
FIFA President Sepp Blatter, right, and CSA President Victor Montagliani react to a photographer's directions following the opening press conference for the FIFA Women's Under 20 World Cup in Toronto, Ontario on Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. (PETER POWER/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Female players say fake soccer turf violates Charter, threaten legal action Add to ...

Making the world’s top female soccer players compete in World Cup games next year on artificial turf at stadiums across Canada is gender discrimination and violates human-rights law and even the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to a group of international players.

A group of international women’s soccer stars has retained two elite law firms, Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP in the United States and Osler Hoskin & Harcourt in Canada, and is threatening legal action over the decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on a “second-class surface” they say causes more injuries and “degrades the women’s game.” The law firms are working for free.

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In a letter dated July 28 and sent to Canadian soccer officials and FIFA president Sepp Blatter, the group – which includes U.S. star Abby Wambach – demands a discussion about a switch to real turf, and a response by Aug. 4. As of Tuesday, according to a lawyer for the group, the invitation had not been taken up.

No current Canadian players are part of the group. However, the letter says former Canadian star Carrie Serwetnyk, who played for the national team in the 1980s and 1990s, is a supporter.

International players have been complaining about the issue since Canada announced its intention to host next year’s tournament on fake grass.

It’s a battle that highlights the stark contrasts between men’s and women’s soccer: Certainly no one has seriously contemplated making the men play on fake grass. The recently completed men’s World Cup in Brazil was estimated to have brought in $4-billion (U.S.) in revenue, dwarfing the most recent edition of its female counterpart staged in Germany in 2011, for which sponsorships and ticket sales managed to cover the $75-million (Canadian) budget.

The letter, published on Tuesday by the women’s soccer news website The Equalizer, appears to take aim not just at FIFA and Canadian soccer officials, but at the event’s sponsors. The letter says that “proposing that world-class female athletes be singled out to play on a second-class surface is wrong and should be unacceptable to your organizations, your broadcast partners, and your corporate sponsors.” Labatt Breweries of Canada (a unit of Anheuser-Busch InBev SA) is a sponsor, along with Bell Canada.

The turf war comes as Canadian soccer fans pivot from the men’s World Cup in Brazil to the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup, which launched this week and is being held in cities across Canada.

Next year, Canada will also host the FIFA Women’s World Cup, with games in Montreal, Ottawa, Moncton, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver – all on artificial turf. The players’ letter reserves special criticism for the surface at Vancouver’s B.C. Place, supposed to host the finals of next year’s tournament, saying it is akin to “playing on concrete.”

Canadian Soccer Association officials declined comment and referred requests for an interview to FIFA. FIFA officials did not respond to e-mails requesting comment.

But Mr. Blatter, FIFA’s president, insisted at a news conference in Toronto this week launching the under-20 tournament that the current turf is much better than the green-carpet-like substance of the 1980s and meets international soccer standards.

In their lawyers’ letter, however, the female players argue that real turf could be brought in at minimal expense. The group says it has consulted field experts and “there are several affordable ways to host the 2015 World Cup on acceptable grass surfaces.”

Hampton Dellinger, a lawyer with Boies Schiller based in Washington, who is spearheading the legal effort along with Tristram Mallett, a Calgary partner with Osler, says putting the women’s tournament on fake turf is against Canadian law: “The bottom line is, it’s not the same [as the men’s playing surface], it’s not right and it’s not legal.”

Follow on Twitter: @jeffreybgray

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