Abby Wambach appeals against artificial turf at 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup

Game-changer for women’s soccer?

No-one could have missed the campaign from within the women’s game against FIFA, and their decision on staging the 2015 World Cup in Canada on artificial grass; rightfully stating that the governing body would never had tried, or even dared, to do the same thing with the men’s World Cup. The campaign – led by a number of high-profile figures, most notably the USA star Abby Wambach – eventually to a court case, which they lost.

Women in sport standing up and fighting for their rights and for equality – in what is popularly called ”the world sport”, the sport for all, but which stills lags behind many of its smaller rivals in developing and supporting the women’s game – must be applauded and backed by every right-thinking person.

And anyone taking on FIFA – one of the most institutionally corrupt, backward and reactionary organisations imaginable – should have earned themselves respect all around the world.

Just dwelling a moment on Abby Wambach: is not she beginning to mould into some kind of soccer’s answer to Billie Jean King, as a star player and powerful right campaigner in one. Just note the way she used her nomination to the World Player of the Year award and invitation to the FIFA gala as a campaign platform, more than anything else. Are we seeing the future leader of an independent women’s soccer organisation; much like the highly-successful WTA, if we are to continue with the tennis analogy.

But there has been one important issue missing in the World Cup-on-artificial grass debate – and that is the most fundamentally important perspective of them all (without which the whole debate would not even take place): the playing perspective.

What actually happens on the pitch.

Because, in terms of the actual game of women’s soccer, artificial pitches is one of the best things that have happened in the women game the last decade or so.

The technical level is very high in the modern women’s game, and the tactical side has taken big steps forward in the last decade or so. The physical side of the game has, understandably, developed hugely as the elite game has been increasingly professionalized.

The game is exciting, competitive and fair.

The big challenge women’s soccer is facing – in terms of its own technical development; but also in terms of its entertainment-value and capacity to compete with its rivals, both the men’s game and other sports – is undoubtedly the pace and tempo of the game. Arguably one of three key aspects in terms of soccer as entertainment, together with quality and competitiveness (where women’s soccer is strongly equipped).

Yes, the pace of the game is much higher now and what it was ten or fifteen years ago – the process of professionalism at the top of the game has produced much quicker, stronger and fitter players; so much so that there does not seem to be any significant room for improvement, in the women’s game in general, in terms of the physical pace and the speed of the players.

But as the old saying goes: ”no-one runs faster than the ball”.

And this is where there is a clear – and important – potential for improvement in women’s soccer: the speed of the ball; the tempo of the passing game. The most important kind of pace in soccer.

And this is where the artificial pitches come into the picture.

Now that the modern artificial grass (and not the old horrible astroturf, and its likes) has been part of the global soccer landscape for over a decade – particularly in the north of Europe and America – and the process of acclimatisation is over, you can now in earnest talk about a truly specific artificial grass-soccer: a different playing style, requiring a slightly different skill-set, as a result of the new surface. The differences can easily be compared to the variations required of a tennis player if he plays on a grass or on a clay court.

On a basic level: the artificial grass produces a slightly quicker passing game, and rewards skill and technique, rather than physicality and tackling, to higher degree than the natural grass surface does. Perfect for the women’s game.

Why is that so? A quick explanation:

1. The ball travels much faster on the completely even and slightly rubbery surface of the artificial grass, than on normal grass – producing a quicker passing-game in general.

2. Also, this faster surface means you do not have to put the same force into your passes – favouring a more pushing passing technique, rather than the traditional one with a bigger back-lift. Of course, this quickens the pace of the game even more, stripping away some of the extra time required to execute the follow-through (also, the rubbery surface is much less forgiving if you hit the ball off centre, and divert it into the ground just a bit – the rubbery surface will make the pass all bouncy and horrible, whereas a normal grass pitch will soften the slight misdirection much more – which also favours the development towards a simpler, quicker, stripped-down way of passing the ball).

3. And with the ball travelling that bit faster it is more difficult and riskier to time your tackle – pushing teams toward a different kind of defensive play, based more on good positional play and a well-synced collective pressing game, rather than the traditional man-on-man physical duels. Of course, the surface is very unkind to the muddy-pitch art form of the sliding tackle.

So keep up the good work Wambach and co. Keep up the fight for the women’s game, and continue challenging the decrepit FIFA.

Just leave artificial grass out of the equation.


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