Artificial turf has become a controversial topic amongst professional players in the US, with international players like Thierry Henry and David Beckham refusing to play MLS games on artificial turf. The turf issue accumulated this year when 40 pro-soccer players took FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association to court claiming gender discrimination. The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015 (hosted in Canada) was exclusively played on artificial turf, when the Men’s 2018 World Cup in Russia and 2022 in Qatar will be played on natural grass.

Natural Grass and Turf – What’s the Difference?

Natural grass is grown and managed by a lawns person whereas artificial turf is a manmade surface typically made from layers of plastic and rubber laid upon on rocky base.

So why do players hate artificial turf so much?

Pro-soccer players have been extremely vocal about their dislike for artificial turf – so what’s the problem?

Injury & Health Risks

  • First artificial turf is a harder surface than natural grass, players have compared it to playing on concrete and it has been blamed by pro-players such as Alex Morgan for causing back pain and increasing fatigue, soreness and delayed recovery time after games. 

  • Secondly artificial turf’s rubber material creates stronger friction between the players shoe and the ground than natural grass does. Some soccer health professionals have said that they have seen a rise in ACL ligament injuries which arise when a player twists their leg and their foot does not release as easy as on natural grass. The rotation of the players’ leg is then taken up by the ligament, which is when injury occurs. Portland Thorns’ Nikki Marshall tore her ACL after getting ‘caught in the turf’ while planting her foot. She said ‘the turf didn’t give like natural grass would have’. 

  • The increased friction also causes ‘turf toe’ which is when a player’s shoe is gripped by the artificial turf and their feet fall forward in their shoe causing them to painfully damage the toe nail or break the toe altogether. 

  • Then there are the skin lacerations suffered by players like Sydney Leroux who famously posted pictures of her torn up legs on Instagram in 2013. When players slide tackle on natural grass the grass gives and is crushed, but the increased friction from artificial turf causes painful skin scrapes and burns. 

  • The rubber fill in artificial turf also holds onto the heat on warm days more so than natural grass. Playing on a hotter playing surface can increase the risk of dehydration of players. The heat also causes fatigue and slows down the intensity of the game. 

  • Finally a NBC ‘News Nightly Report’ reported that the black rubber beads embedded in turf called crumb rubber made from recycled tires may contain carcinogens from chemicals such as benzene, carbon black and lead. This s currently being researched into. 

Despite these complaints from pro-soccer players and health professionals FIFA says there is not a high rate of injuries on artificial turf compared to natural grass. Perhaps this is wrong of FIFA or perhaps the lack of high injury rate might be explained by the change of playing style on artificial turf.

Change of Playing Style

Some pro-soccer players have said that the risk of injury makes them less likely to play so aggressively and take more risks. Sydney Leroux said “I learned while playing on the turf in Boston there are certain tackles I am just not going to go into. …Turf does that to you. It takes away from how I play and we play soccer.” There is no doubt that this ‘holding back’ causes the style of game to change when played on artificial turf.

Also the consistently harder flatter surface of artificial turf changes the way the ball reacts to the playing field. It moves faster off the surface, when the ball bounces it is difficult for players guess which direction or by how much it will bounce. This impacts greatly on player’s ball control and timing shots. Players have also found that they cannot chip under the ball in the same way they can on natural grass. This means that artificial turf not only effects the style of the game but the quality of the game played.

So why have artificial grass in the first place?

Artificial turf was first introduced to soccer in the 1980s by the English team Queen Park Rangers who were looking for a grass alternative which didn’t require as much management as natural grass to keep the field in good quality playing condition. Many teams followed suit, but in 1994 the English Premiership League announced that all clubs had to get rid of their artificial turf as the quality of the field was very poor and there was an increasing amount of injuries.

So why are we still having this debate in 2015? Well artificial turf has some good qualities:

  • It can handle much more traffic than a natural grass field. Many urban soccer pitches use artificial turf for this reason. 
  • It can be played on in poor weather conditions such as heavy rain 
  • It can be laid indoors allowing play no matter heat, rain, fog, snow or wind 

Artificial turf also doesn’t demand the water that natural grass does in order to stay in playable condition. When there are areas in the US like California in severe drought, is it responsible to use water for playing fields?

So in some circumstances artificial turf is favorable, but in the professional game? Some of the Major League Soccer and National Women’s Soccer League home stadiums are lined with artificial turf – what does that say about how their management values the game?

We would say that in some cases it is preferable and environmentally responsible to use artificial turf. However in order to see soccer played at its best by pro-soccer players, high profile games such as the Women’s World Cup should remain on natural grass.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever played on artificial turf, if so what is your experience?