Separate but equal is never a good look, but that’s the road FIFA’s chosen for next summer’s Women’s World Cup. Making its first trip to Canada, the tournament is set to take over sites like Vancouver’s BC Place, Montréal’s Olympic Stadium, and four other venues with artificial surfaces. It will be the first time soccer’s governing body has green lit a senior-level event on turf, turning 24 women’s national teams into guinea pigs come June 2015.
That’s one view cited in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday in Toronto, one that alleges gender discrimination on the part of FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA). Another view? Canada was the only country to bid for the 2015 tournament, and while global outrage is being cited as a reason to change course, many of the stars bringing the complaint play on artificial turf at club level.
This isn’t just any suit. A group of over 40 players have been named as applicants with with a Human Rights Tribunal in Ontario. The stars have requested an expedited proceeding, hoping the matter will be settled by the end of the year. Presumably, that’s enough time to get Winnipeg, Edmonton, and the other venues to comply with a court order – assuming those sites don’t walk away from the event entirely. Varying reports put the cost of installing a natural field at between $500,000 and $1 million, per venue.
Among those stars is Alex Morgan, one of the women’s game’s most recognizable players, and somebody who plays her club-level ball for the Portland Thorns. Providence Park, the team’s home venue, has one of the nicer surfaces in North America, but it’s still FieldTurf. Apparently a human right for FIFA isn’t immutable for the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).
Abby Wambach is also one of the plaintiffs. The former FIFA World Player of the Year has played 27 of her 31 NWSL games on artificial surfaces, including all 16 games in Rochester, N.Y., for her hometown Western New York Flash. Turf’s fine at home, but not at the World Cup
Nadine Angerer (current FIFA Player of the Year), Veronica Boquete (Spain’s best player), Samantha Kerr (one of Australia’s brightest young stars), and Heather O’Reilly (capped 208 times by the U.S.) are also named in the suit. All four of them play at least part of their club soccer on carpets. To the extent there is any legitimate “turf-rage,” it only surfaces when convenient.
That’s not even the biggest problem with the complaint. The bigger issue hints at a different (albeit much different) type of double standard, one based on antiquated ideas of turf’s quality. Though few fans are old enough to remember when the New York Cosmos or Queens Park Rangers played on horrible, early versions of AstroTurf in the 1980s, many use those images as a standard, as if the World Cup is going to be waged on the same surfaces that tore up baseball Hall of Famer Andre Dawson’s knees or caused Chicago Bear Wendell Davis to blow out both patella tendons while running a route against the Philadelphia Eagles. Hopefully, FIFA and the CSA would agree: That kind of turf is unacceptable.
As proof more modern synthetics offer little recourse, the players’ lawyers included pictures from Sydney Leroux, Kerr, and Angerer – images that show ugly abrasions suffered while playing on turf. Aside from the fact Leroux’s occurred on what’s generally recognized as a soccer disaster (anything that happens at Somerville, Mass.’s Dilboy Stadium is a total outlier), there’s an implication injuries don’t happen on grass. If only that were true.
The players’ complaint sites studies saying turf is more harmful than grass. Other research disagrees. Regardless, the game does play differently on artificial surfaces. And no matter how advanced FieldTurf and its competitors become, the fact that the World Cup won’t be on grass creates a state of other-ness.
For all the problems with the players’ stance – one that’s become more sensational than informative – they still hold that trump card. The Men’s World Cup may be headed behind a new iron curtain, and eight years from now, it could be played in billion dollar biodomes amid the Qatari summer, but those tournaments will still be on grass. Yet no matter how much the women object, FIFA and the CSA are set on turf.
Hence the suit. Hence, the publicity, with Wambach talking to anybody and everybody about her timely turf problems. Hence the outcry about a second standard, and hence the lawsuit. If the men don’t play on turf and the women don’t want to, why are FIFA and the CSA so insistent?
A good turf field may be just as playable (and, healthy) as grass, but that’s a separate debate. This one is about standards. The fact that FIFA sees fit to impose different guidelines on women creates an otherness that discriminates. It argues for separate but equal.
Unfortunately, there may not be a solution, particularly less than a year before kickoff. There are reasons why venues like Toronto’s BMO Field (Pan Am Games) aren’t taking part. And, there’s a reason why more countries didn’t compete with Canada to host the event. The women’s game is being discriminated against, but the source of that attitude runs deeper than FieldTurf.
It runs under an unsurprising truth: FIFA’s done a poor job with the women’s game. From Sepp Blatter’s sexism to the lack of interest in competition during Canada’s bid, the organization hasn’t created a world where hosting the women’s marquee event is a desired thing. Maybe the tournament should just alternate between Germany and the U.S.?
Or maybe, FIFA should get rid of the possibility of otherness entirely. You bid for the Men’s World Cup? You’re also hosting the Women’s, and you’re doing so in the same venues, with the same supporting facilities. If they’re grass fields, turf fields, it doesn’t matter. The men and women play at the same venues.
If that means a country doesn’t want the men’s event for fear of supporting the women’s, so be it. These World Cups should be about growing the game, no matter who’s on the field. If a nation isn’t interested in that, then FIFA shouldn’t be interested in that nation.
It would eliminate that otherness – the idea that what’s good for the women’s game may not meet the mens’ standard. Sadly, this would also require the improbable: FIFA seeing both sides of the game on the same level.