Women’s World Cup players committed to legal case against use of artificial turf

Women's World Cup players holding firm against planned use of artificial turf in Canada next summer.

Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

A day after a group of leading international women’s soccer players filed a lawsuit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association against the planned use of artificial turf at next year’s Women’s World Cup, several players and their lawyers reaffirmed their commitment to their case and cause on Thursday. They conceded, however, that a player boycott has not been discussed.

A worldwide coalition of women’s stars, including the USA’s Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, have been campaigning for the tournament to be held on natural grass, just like every other men’s and Women’s World Cup before it, and first threatened legal action back in July.

"I’ve played on artificial turf," Germany goalkeeper and reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Nadine Angerer said on a conference call. "The risk to get injured is very, very high there. It totally changes the game. It’s not fair why our game should be changed."

With the tournament expanded from 16 to 24 teams, the increased pacing of the games will further add to the strain. "It’s a fact that, especially in a tournament where you have to play every three days, the recovery after playing on a turf field is not the same as on grass," said Spain star Vero Boquete. "We want to have the best field to be able to do our best and to show the best that women’s soccer has."

The coalition of players and its alliance of lawyers have argued that making women play a World Cup on artificial turf, when men would never be asked to, is a form of gender discrimination. Not to mention that it tends to harm the level of play, and ignores the clear preference for natural grass among the vast majority of players. "It’s like asking Olympic athletes, ‘Just go run on that cinder track. It’s no big deal. You can still run faster,’" said Carrie Serwetnyk, the first female player inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in 2001. "As a citizen, I expect more from my country. This is such an exquisite, important event."

The lawyers involved feel that their case is so strong that a win should be straightforward. "We feel this is a clear-cut case of discrimination," said David Wright, one of the attorneys. "FIFA and the CSA are treating women differently than they treat men. It’s a simple bottom line. Previous men’s World Cups were held on grass and FIFA has scheduled upcoming [men’s] World Cups on grass. The CSA made sure the World Cup qualifying games for the [Canadian] men’s team were played on grass."

The suit was filed to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in Toronto. "The various human rights tribunals across Canada have been quite critical in their rulings of organizations that have provided unequal sporting opportunities to women," said Jane Letton, another lawyer on the case.

MONEY ISN'T EVERYTHING

A motion for an expedited hearing has also been filed, with a hearing requested for Nov. 26. The hope is that a quick judgment would leave the necessary time to lay grass over the turf months in advance in order to let it set properly. Alternatively, that would allow the local organizing committee to change some of the venues to stadiums already equipped with grass fields. 

The group bringing the action argues that the cost of temporarily equipping the six venues with natural grass shouldn’t be a factor. After consulting with a range of experts, they claim that the cost should be no more than $3 million in total. "It is a drop in the bucket in terms of FIFA’s coffers [reported to contain more than $1.4 billion in reserves]; Canada is one of the richest nations on earth," said Hampton Dellinger, the lead lawyer on the case. "This is completely economically feasible." 

What’s more, under Canadian law, cost cannot trump human rights, such as freedom from gender discrimination, in the absence of "undue hardship." The lawyers say that the respective governing bodies’ financial means are such that no undue hardship could be demonstrated.

Over the course of their campaign, the players have enjoyed a growing groundswell of support from famous athletes and celebrities like actor Tom Hanks. National federations, meanwhile, have not interfered. "It’s up to the players," said Angerer. "Our federations have nothing to do with this. My federation, they know what my opinion is and they never said, ‘Please stop it.’ Not at all."

FIFA and the CSA, meanwhile, have largely been mum on the subject. Earlier this week, however, FIFA’s head of women’s competitions Tatjana Haenni said "We play on artificial turf and there’s no Plan B." 

When contacted by FOXsoccer.com, FIFA had no comment, claiming it had not yet been served with the suit. The Canadian Soccer Association did not respond to a request for comment.