Turf War: Players withdraw complaint over artificial turf at Women's World Cup



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FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2014, file photo United States' forward Abby Wambach (20) walks off the field following an international friendly game with Mexico, in Sandy, Utah. A group of prominent international players led by U.S. forward Abby Wambach has withdrawn a complaint over artificial turf fields at this year's Women's World Cup in Canada. The artificial turf became a contentious issue with the players, who filed a complaint in Canada last fall that claimed the plan amounted to gender discrimination because the men's World Cup is held on grass. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)


U.S. forward Abby Wambach and a group of fellow players have withdrawn their complaint of gender discrimination over the artificial turf fields to be used for this year's World Cup in Canada.

The artificial turf became a contentious issue with the players, who have claimed that the surface is less forgiving than natural grass and impacts play because of concerns over injury. They also claim that balls travel and bounce differently on turf.

But their overriding complaint was one of equity: The men's World Cup is held on real grass.

"Our legal action has ended. But I am hopeful that the players' willingness to contest the unequal playing fields — and the tremendous public support we received during the effort — marks the start of even greater activism to ensure fair treatment when it comes to women's sports," Wambach said in a statement Wednesday.

The players' complaint was filed last fall with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. It named FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, and the Canadian Soccer Association. Neither budged in reconsidering the planned surface for the event.

The World Cup will be played in six Canadian cities starting in June, with an expanded field of 24 teams. The final is scheduled for July 5 at Vancouver's BC Place.

The players want to focus on their matches and not the controversy, attorney Hampton Dellinger said.

"The players are doing what FIFA and CSA have proven incapable of: putting the sport of soccer first," he said.

FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke issued a statement saying that over the past several months he had met with players and the technical staffs from World Cup-qualified teams.

"What was very clear from the meetings with the players was their desire and enthusiasm about making this the greatest FIFA Women's World Cup ever, and to ensure that they have the best possible conditions to perform well," he said. "This is a goal they share with FIFA and we are totally committed to providing the best possible surface to enable everyone to enjoy a great footballing spectacle."

Valcke said both sides can now focus on the preparation and promotion of the event.

The federation's head of women's competitions, Tatjana Haenni, spoke at an event promoting women's soccer in Philadelphia last week and acknowledged concerns about the condition of the artificial turf at BC Place. Plans have since emerged to upgrade the surface before the World Cup.

Wambach was joined in the complaint by several other top players, including U.S. striker Alex Morgan, Germany's Nadine Angerer and Spain's Veronica Boquete.

Even actor Tom Hanks took up the players' cause, going to Twitter last year to say: "Opinion: Women's World Cup is the best Soccer of the year. Hey FIFA, they deserve real grass. Put in sod. Hanx."

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant also took to social media to post a photo of Sydney Leroux's battered legs after a match on artificial turf.

FIFA changed its rules in 2004 to allow sanctioned matches on certain artificial surfaces. A few games at the 2010 men's World Cup in South Africa were played on grass that had been reinforced by artificial fibers.

FIFA rules also state that all matches and practices for the World Cup must be held on the same surface. Canada's bid for the event stipulated that the final be played on the artificial field at BC Place, which seats 55,000.

Canadian Soccer Association President Victor Montagliani also issued a statement welcoming the news that the complaint had been dropped.

"Our goal is, and has always been, to deliver a world-class competition that leaves a lasting legacy for sport, for women, and for Canada that reaches far beyond the competition," he said.

Canada is also expected to bid for the men's 2026 World Cup — possibly competing with bids from the United States and Mexico — but it is unlikely any bid that includes artificial turf would have a chance at winning.

The two countries bidding for the 2019 Women's World Cup, France and South Korea, plan to host matches on natural grass.

Dellinger said the complaint did achieve some of its goals.

"The players' united, international effort to protest discrimination has had a positive impact," he said. "The deplorable artificial surface at BC Place, the site of the final, will be replaced. Goal-line technology will be used for the first time in a Women's World Cup and we know that the 2019 World Cup will be held on grass. Moreover, the players and their supporters have highlighted continuing gender inequity in sports and lessened the chance that such wrongdoing will occur in the future."

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