Lawyers for more than 40 of the world's best female soccer players have put FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) on final notice, saying they will file a lawsuit next week if they don't get a response to the players' formal complaint about staging next summer's FIFA Women's World Cup on artificial turf fields.
Men would never be asked to play their World Cup on anything but natural grass, so women shouldn't be forced to play their biggest international tournament on an "inferior surface," says the coalition of national team players, including U.S. stars Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, Germany's FIFA player of the year Nadine Angerer and Spain's Veronica Boquete. They are serious about filing before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
"A lawsuit is a last resort but one that unfortunately appears necessary," said an e-mail from Hampton Dellinger of U.S law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, who is representing them pro bono, in conjunction with a Canadian firm. "As the already drafted legal papers demonstrate, the players and their attorneys are prepared to put before a judge what we believe is a clear – and very unfortunate – case of gender discrimination."
The lawyers had sent two recent letters to FIFA and the CSA, asking them to consider installing temporary natural grass over the synthetic surfaces for the tournament to be held in six Canadian cities next summer.
The lawyers say they have consulted "dozens" of North American grass experts who are confident it could be done well and affordably for the world-class month-long tournament. When the lawyers received "no meaningful response" other than confirmation of receipt, they sent FIFA and the CSA a final notice this week.
Representatives from FIFA will make already-scheduled trips to each of the Canadian host sites next week for evaluation (Ottawa, Moncton, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton and Montreal), and a spokesman for Canada 2015 organizers said they would comment then. Each competition and training field will be independently inspected before the event and must satisfy FIFA's 2-Star standard. All playing surfaces in a single World Cup must be uniform.
FIFA did not immediately respond to requests for reaction on Friday. The CSA declined to comment, but has, in the past, maintained that multipurpose, artificial turf stadiums across Canada were always part of its bid. The president of the CSA commented during an address to the Vancouver Board of Trade earlier this month, saying it was wrong to consider the issue is about discrimination.
"I will say that is the biggest form of misinformation I have ever heard in my life," Victor Montagliani said.
Many of these Canadian fields were just used for the U-20 Women's World Cup. Canada won the right to host the 2015 event back in 2011, when the only other bidder, Zimbabwe, dropped out.
England defender Alex Scott does not believe the players' objection will have any effect. The English women have been training on a modern synthetic field and are trying to make it as close as possible to fields they will see in Canada.
"Nothing will change; the decision was for it to be played in Canada," Scott told Sky Sports. "We're just preparing and looking forward to playing there."
Many of the players objecting also play in the National Women's Soccer League in small stadiums with artificial turf. Wambach has argued that they do what's necessary in a start-up league, but they should have the best surface available in the sport's biggest global women's event. The World Cup hasn't been played on artificial turf, although some qualifiers and friendlies have, such as the U.S women hosting Mexico in Rochester, N.Y., just last week.
The ball moves differently on synthetic turf, many players say, sliding on it can be painful and diving headers carry more risk. On a hot, sunny day, artificial turf heats up, thanks to its black crumb rubber infill and synthetic grass fibres, and watering it only does so much to cool the playing surface.
American player Sydney Leroux recently tweeted a photo of her badly scraped and bruised legs after a session on artificial turf (however, reportedly not from a FIFA 2-Star field). The photo was re-tweeted by NBA stars Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, urging FIFA to put this tournament on grass instead. Some of the U.S. men's soccer team have also tweeted their support for the women, as has actor Tom Hanks. The Women's Sports Foundation has also joined the cause.
A study done by researchers at York University in Toronto backs up the players' objections. They interviewed 99 professional players from six Major League Soccer teams during the 2011 season and found that 94 per cent felt it posed more risk of injury than natural grass. They overwhelming reported that the surface feels stiffer, creates more friction, and requires more physical exertion when one plays on it compared to natural grass. Among their responses were descriptive phrases like "pounds on joints," "cleats don't slide," "body gets tired faster" and "running in sand."
"The epidemiological data strongly suggests that the actual number of injuries that occur while playing on artificial turf are greater than while playing on natural grass, particularly noncontact injuries, like a noncontact ACL tear," said William Gage, associate dean of research and innovation in York's faculty of health, and a contributor to the published study.
Wambach started speaking publicly about the issue last year and gathered others, saying that playing their premier event on artificial turf would be a step backward for women's sports.
"I think if you asked the men to play their World Cup on turf, they would refuse to play; they make way too much money in their club programs to take that risk," Wambach said in a 2013 interview with The Globe and Mail. "Why shouldn't the Canadians want to play the most important tournament in the game of women's soccer, in their home country in front of the world, on the best field possible, the best grass? I get that it's a money issue and a logistics issue, but sort it out between now and then. I want FIFA to take the bull by the horns and do what's right, because the men wouldn't be dealing with this issue. You are not going to see me doing a diving header on artificial turf in a World Cup – it will change the way the game is played there, and that's a real shame."
The lawyers say the players were given a survey in 2013, which solicited their opinions on various things, including the best playing surface for major tournaments. Many players thought if there was strong support for grass in that survey, it could lead to a change for the 2015 World Cup, but nothing came of it. They also felt some national federations have stifled their players from speaking out publicly .
"Right now we want to send a strong reminder to the federations, FIFA and the CSA that we want the right thing to happen here, we want the players playing the best surface possible," said Catherine Gleason-Mercier of the Canadian firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.