Pitch Imperfect: How ready will new BC Place pitch be for Women’s World Cup?

Pitch Imperfect: How ready will new BC Place pitch be for Women’s World Cup?

In this week of scandals, arrests and resignations, FIFA must be looking for any small crumbs of comfort in what will go down as the organisation’s annus horribilis.

Well here’s one for them. With the world fully focused on all the transgressions that are coming to light and the falling house of cards amongst the elite of FIFA, no-one’s talking about artificial pitches at the Women’s World Cup anymore. Well, at least not for now.

Give it a few days until the tournament kicks off and that will likely change. The six turf pitches in use during the competition, and especially the newly installed pitch at Vancouver’s BC Place, will be under intense worldwide scrutiny.

There’s no need to give any more column inches to the ridiculousness of the court case brought against FIFA and the CSA over turf pitches by some of the world’s leading players. It always seemed doomed to failure. It did and that’s in the past now.

What lies in the future are the burning questions. Just how will the first senior World Cup to be played on turf play out? And just how ready will the BC Place pitch be?

While everyone wants to focus on the football without any distractions (which will be close to impossible with the happenings back at FIFA HQ), the reality is that some will be awaiting the first opportunity to berate the turf pitches and further their argument that the tournament should not be getting played on them.

And let’s be honest here, we are just one bad injury away or one bad bounce costing a crucial goal for the whole situation to blow up. The likelihood of that happening? Pretty high I would say, especially due to many players unfamiliarity with the surface.

The newly laid BC Place pitch will be one of the centres of all the attention. It is after all hosting the Final, along with eight other matches, and has been held up as state of the art.

Anyone who follows the Whitecaps or Major League Soccer knows the reputation of the turf at the stadium. Well the old turf at any rate. It was widely panned. Visiting teams hated it, Robbie Keane was always good for a soundbite about it, and Thierry Henry was one of the players who wouldn’t even travel to play on it. Even the home players hated the damn thing.

Thankfully it’s now gone. Ripped up and sent to place where turf monsters go to die, or Surrey as the locals call it. In its place is a brand spanking new turf pitch. Top of the range and one of only three such pitches around the world, including Bayern Munich’s training ground.

The Polytan Ligaturf surface, or to give it its full name LigaTurf RS+CoolPlus World Cup Edition 260 W ACS 90 Bionic Fibre Infill, is a FIFA 2-Star field. What does that mean in everyday language? It’s not as crap as a 1-Star one.

The new BC Place pitch was installed at a cost of $1,327,000, with BC Place owners PavCo contributing $827,000 towards it and Canada Soccer and Rugby Canada splitting the $500,000 balance between them.

Vancouver Whitecaps v Real Salt Lake - The Story In Pictures (5)The pitch is two shades of green and has a special infill.

The infill has been specifically made for the use in sports fields. It’s made to look like natural dirt, just coloured green for maximum HD quality TV viewing at home. It’s also meant to prevent as much dust and pellets coming up. The jury’s still out on that one.

It’s like no other pitch in the tournament, which has in itself already seen questions being raised as to why that is. Why were all the stadia not refitted with a similar pitch?

“It’s not the same manufacturer across all six of our stadia,” NOC Chief Stadia Officer Don Hardman told reporters at a media turf briefing at BC Place on Wednesday. “What we have is a FIFA preferred producer program. There’s a number of manufacturers that all meet the specific criteria and football turf so we have different manufacturers across the country.”

But surely FIFA and the organisers would want continuity between the six pitches being used.

“We tried to develop the legacy and the infrastructure that we have in place,” Hardman continued. “We’ve been utilising the football turf that has been in place at a number of stadiums and also going through the tender process to get the best installation possible.”

That installation of the new pitch is not even one week old at the time of writing this and there’s already been moans about it and some anguish behind the scenes from officials.

There’s only been one actual game played on it so far, last Saturday’s MLS match between the Caps and Real Salt Lake. Neither team were able to get a full practice session on it prior to the game and it didn’t win a lot of plaudits from the visiting RSL players.

A new pitch usually takes around eight weeks to be fully broken in. By the time the first World Cup game kicks off at BC Place on June 8th, the pitch will have been ready for just 10 days.

“If you have a brand new pitch, you have to bring people on to the pitch and need activity on the pitch,” Johannes Holzmüller, Group Leader of the FIFA Quality Programme, told reporters at the briefing. “Only after a few weeks or after this activity, depending how much you always try to maintain the pitch, then you have the best pitch conditions.

“Similarly, when you have an older pitch, you have to maintain the pitch accordingly. That will bring the fibres upright. Especially here in Canada, where we have some pitches used not only for soccer but also some other sports, it’s very important to maintain the pitches so at the end you have upright fibres in the end. If everything is done the right way, then these pitches can meet the FIFA 2-Star requirement.”

BC Place new turf pitchWith that in mind then, why was the new BC Place pitch only installed last week when it clearly doesn’t meet that criteria for breaking it in?

“Part of it was timing,” Hardman told us. “This is a very busy building between the trade show in the offseason and the MLS schedule. We had a window of opportunity in May and we made the best efforts we could.”

Officials say the prep has been fast-tracked, to break it in and age at a quicker rate, and it’s not a concern.

It was on Saturday though when the Whitecaps took on Real Salt Lake.

“It needs time, it needs time. It is what it is.” That was the view of RSL boss Jeff Cassar after Saturday’s game, who was one of many who bemoaned the fact that their shoes were left dirty and in many cases had now become green in colour.

RSL’s veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando expanded more in his criticism of the new surface.

“I wasn’t a fan,” Rimando told reporters after Saturday’s game. “Every time a ball comes, the sand gets in your eye and rubbers gets everywhere. As you saw, everybody that’s played, it’s all over your feet and legs. Hopefully that kinda wears in as more players play on it.

“Slippery for sure. You saw all the guys slipping out there. First game though, so you can’t be too critical on it. I think as more players play on it, it’s going to get broken in and be better hopefully.”

Now you can take the view of a losing visiting team with some pinch of salt of course. More concerning are the rumours that the pitch didn’t fare well in FIFA’s official initial testing of the surface on Sunday, although that wasn’t confirmed by the team doing the testing, Sports Labs Ltd.

BC Place turf pitch testingSports Labs are an Edinburgh based, FIFA accredited test institute that carries out all the performance testing on the surfaces and they told us that the testing is ongoing and still far from complete.

“The process we carry out is on the surface and then we go back to the lab in Scotland and carry out the performance test,” Sports Labs engineer Niall MacPhee told AFTN. “It’s a phased process. It doesn’t happen that we just turn up and test, so we’re still going through that process.

“As you can see, I’m still here with the equipment. We need to get back to the laboratory and do all the sample checks. So it would be premature to say pass or fail.”

The actual testing of the surface is rigorous. What does it involve? Well here’s FIFA official blurb on the subject from their “Football Turf Background Information” document:

The FIFA Quality Programme for Football Turf is a rigorous testing programme for artificial football surfaces. At the core of the FIFA Quality Programme for Football Turf are four basic objectives:

– Playing performance (ball/surface interaction)

– Safety (player/surface interaction)
– Durability
– Quality assurance

This quality testing scheme compares results on football turf against those on natural grass pitches in good condition so that the playing characteristics are mirrored. The football turf has to be rigorously tested both in the laboratory and in its installed location to ensure that the surface reacts to the ball as it would on a
grass pitch in good condition in terms of roll and bounce.

Similarly, the tests are designed to ensure that players can play on football turf with the same confidence as they would on a natural grass pitch in good condition. Successfully tested fields are awarded one of the two FIFA RECOMMENDED marks, provided that all of the stringent criteria are met during the testing procedure.

The FIFA Quality Programme has set the industry standard and put the focus on player well-being and playing performance.

So there you go!

But to break it down specifically to what’s happening at BC Place, all tests are around the safety of the player and to make sure the pitch plays the same all over whether you’re a winger, a defender or a goalkeeper.

The tests are also to make sure that the pitch is built to endure. All new pitches are expected to last for way more than one or two seasons and ideally six to eight years of high quality use is the expectation, depending on the correct maintenance.

Part of the testing at BC Place has seen the use of a torque metre by dropping weights and seeing how much traction is there when you turn your foot. They’re also testing the rolling and rebounds of the ball, ageing and the dimensions.

It’s all very thorough and exhaustive.

“We’ve tested the surface on over 19 occasions and carried out performance tests in the laboratory back home in Scotland, but we also carry out performance tests on the surfaces,” Sports Labs MacPhee told reporters. “The performance tests we carry out are players surface interaction tests and ball surface interaction tests.

“A lot of these tests will tell you how hard the surface is compared to concrete, how much the surface deforms under your foot, how far the ball rolls on the surface, how much a ball rebounds on the surface and we also look at the type of polymers used. All these tests are carried out on the surface and prior to that in the laboratory.

BC Place turf pitch shoe damageAlthough no-one is admitting it, it’s fairly obvious to the layman that the pitch is not ready yet. My shoes will also testify to that.

The amount of dirt and debris coming up off the new pitch is not good and how healthy it is for the players playing on it is a whole other debate.

“This pitch has been installed very recently and you’re going to get that,” MacPhee told us. “You’ll get compaction of the rubber over a period of time.”

Can the rapid ageing process they’re putting it through compound the pellets enough before Monday’s opening matches? Publically, at least, everyone is hopeful.

“This is probably just the natural break in process, with this being less than a week old,” Hardman told us. “We still have to work on some of the compaction and letting the natural settlement of the pitch happen and this will dissipate in time.”

“We’re working with the manufacturer and the stadium groundkeeping staff and we’re definitely addressing all those issues in advance of the first match here.”

Let’s hope he’s right.

For now, we have to hope that the artificial pitches don’t become anything like one of the main talking points from the tournament and all the action and drama stems from the actual action taking place on them. FIFA would love that too right now.

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