There's a little bit of Canada on the fields at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, despite not having a team in the international soccer championships.
The grass filling out the fields where the world's top soccer clubs are duking it out is perennial ryegrass from seeds produced just outside of Winnipeg. The seeds have been used at the Euro Cup in 2012 and World Cup in South Africa in 2010 – but this time around the Canadian seeds aren't sprouting smiles in Brazil, where top teams have been complaining about the quality of the soccer pitches.
DLF – a Danish-owned international seed producer and distributor with a Canadian division called Pickseed – landed the contract to provide seed for all 12 venues at the World Cup with their ryegrass that is specially designed to be durable, quick-to-germinate and able to grow in a wide range of temperatures.
"These soccer pitches in Brazil are at different altitudes and different temperatures, and the perennial ryegrass is better able to handle the pitches where the temperatures are a little bit cooler," said Terry Scott, vice-president of Western Canada sales at Pickseed.
All of the fields are seeded with a base layer of bermuda grass, but at this time of year in Brazil grass goes dormant, stops growing and starts to turn brown, Mr. Scott explained. To fill out the fields, a layer of topsoil is added and then the fields are seeded with the ryegrass throughout the weeks leading up to the games.
Quality soccer-pitch grass needs to be able to be mowed down to the appropriate height without thinning out, according to Eric Lyons, a sports turf management expert and associate professor in the department of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph. It also, obviously, needs to be durable enough to be played on.
Colour and uniformity, while not as important for the beautiful game, play a role as well, Dr. Lyons said.
"Uniformity is important for television as far as colour and look. As far as actual play, as long as the grass is being mowed at the same height and the leaf blades are the same width, uniformity is less important," he explained, noting bare spots could cause trouble on both fronts.
"That doesn't make it unimportant, though, because it's part of the production. What it looks like on TV is darn important to the soccer community and to Brazil and to DLS."
Different varieties of a grass species have natural attributes – some hold up better in heat and humidity, others can handle wear and tear well – so seed developers breed different species together to try to capture as many desirable attributes in one cultivated variety, or "cultivar," explained Leah Brilman, director of product management and technical services for DLF's American division in Oregon.
"You can cross them together and try to get the qualities of both in a new cultivar," Dr. Brilman explained.
DLF tested several varieties of their perennial ryegrass seeds in Brazil to see which ones would hold up the best, Dr. Brilman said. In the end, DLF selected five varieties of perennial ryegrass, including seeds sourced in Manitoba, to send down to Brazil to cover all the possible environments of the different stadiums. If one stadium was drier and cooler, the cultivars that prefer a hot and humid atmosphere wouldn't do as well, but the ones that thrive in cool, dry climates would spread and fill out the field.
Watching on TV at home in Winnipeg, Mr. Scott said it looks like the grass is holding up well. But on the ground in Brazil there have been multiple complaints about the quality of the fields. Players and coaches from various teams have complained that the grass is not up to snuff compared to European pitches, saying it is dry and patchy.
The head coach for Chile, Jorge Sampaoli, told Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo he didn't think the grass should even be played on. Other teams have reportedly been prevented from practising in some stadiums in an effort to preserve the grass.
The stadium in the Amazon city of Manaus, where it is currently dry season, has drawn a particularly critical eye. Ahead of last weekend's match between England and Italy, the groundskeeper in charge of the Manaus pitch told the Associated Press that conditions were dire.
"Frankly, Manaus is in bad shape," Carlos Botella said. "We've started to implement an emergency plan to try to save the field and improve it as much as possible, but I don't think it'll be in good condition by the weekend."
Their attempts to revive the dry, patchy grass before the marquee match through extra fertilizing evidently fell short: Groundskeepers painted the field green ahead of the match to hide its parched appearance.
But no matter how good Canadian seeds are, they can only go so far to ensure the quality of the fields, according to Dr. Lyons.
"There's soil, the amount of traffic they're getting, there are so many things that play a factor," he said. A variety might be shade-resistant, for example, but no grass can grow well without any sunlight at all, Dr. Lyons said. He said the management of the fields, environments of the different stadiums and amount of use the pitches are getting could be what is wearing down the grass.
"You can only rely on genetics or cultivar improvements so much," he said.
A history of grass
This is not the grass's first global soccer outing: Pickseed supplied the seeds for the grass at the World Cup in 2010 in South Africa, including the Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg and 74 other World Cup stadiums, including practice facilities.
The grass used in South Africa was a blend of perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass and bolstered with some artificial grass.
Canadian grass made an appearance at the championship competition for the Union of European Football Associations in 2012, and the soccer pitches in Poland and Ukraine for the UEFA European Championship that year were also made with Canadian-made seed.
Also, the greens at Augusta National, where the Masters are held each year, are made in Canada. Closer to home, you can find Canadian grass at BMO Field, home to Toronto's Major League Soccer club.
A green MVP
Many factors make perennial ryegrass better suited to sports fields than other varieties of grass and different from the green stuff that covers lawns in North America.
Seeds: Perennial ryegrass starts to germinate quickly, in five to seven days, and is established within 10 days. This makes it more durable to wear and tear because the grass matures faster than other grasses. Fescue, for example, takes as long as 21 days to become an established lawn.
Climate sensitivity: The perennial ryegrass seeds sent to Brazil were a mix of a five varieties, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Ryegrass in general is a particularly hearty species of grass, and the mix included varieties that were more drought-resistant in some cases or shade-resistant in others. That way, no matter the climate of a particular stadium, one variety would always fill out the pitch.
Durability: Compared with Kentucky bluegrass, the grass variety you'll likely find on your front lawn, which takes a year to become very tolerant to wear, perennial ryegrass is sturdier at a younger age. The stadiums in Brazil were seeded in April, so the grass was only about two months old when the World Cup started. Other grass species would be too fragile to play on, but the ryegrass is already mature and better able to withstand the kicks and dives of the World Cup games.
Resistance to disease: Different varieties of perennial ryegrass are naturally more resistent to different diseases. One variety can fend off pink snow mold while another can resist leaf spot. Testing and sending down a blend of seed varieties means the grass on the pitches is more likely to survive any lawn diseases that come its way.
Overseeding: Overseeding is simply covering an established lawn with a new layer of seeds. In Brazil, the fields were already covered with Bermuda grass, which goes dormant, turns brown and stops growing in the winter. Perennial ryegrass was chosen to fill out the fields in part because it grows well in the cooler weather and germinates quickly. To keep sports and golf fields lush, it's common practice to cycle through types of grasses as the seasons change.
With a report from Stephanie Nolen