Women’s World Cup turf not an equal rights issue

Abby Wambach. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

The validity of the message is related to the messenger.

Abby Wambach is the wrong messenger to be speaking out about the FIFA Women’s World Cup being played on artificial surfaces. Not only is it not an equal rights issue, it isn’t having an adverse effect on play.

The United States striker had this to say after a recent training session: “I think that a lot of the games are definitely being played differently now (because) the games are on turf. I think there’s probably more goals in this tournament if it weren’t for the turf—myself being on the losing end of that battle a few times now.”

Wambach is not the only player who has been outspoken. Before the tournament teammate Megan Rapinoe said, “I don't really think this can be argued with. I just think it's a second-rate surface. And if FIFA is really serious about arguing that it wasn't a second-rate surface, well, then they would put other major championships or other major games around the world”.

Artificial surfaces aren’t readily used around the world so Rapinoe is making a straw man argument. Due to the North American climate and the high volume of sports played in shared venues, artificial turf has become a viable and necessary alternative.

Furthermore, men compete on it all the time. Every week in Major League Soccer, players lace up their boots and play on field turf. If Kaka and Clint Dempsey are fine with playing their home fixtures on artificial grass, Wambach shouldn’t be crying foul. Every year major European clubs come over to North America and play on turf. MLS all-star games, MLS Cups, and senior men’s CONCACAF matches have all been played on turf without issue.

The National Women’s Soccer League, home to the majority of American players, is a nine-team league. Five clubs play their games on turf and even more train on the surface. For comparison sake, there are four artificial fields in the MLS. Rapinoe’s team, the Seattle Reign, play on Astro turf, arguably the worst type of synthetic field. All of the field turf surfaces being played on in the World Cup are FIFA approved, something that can’t be said for all the fields in the NWSL.

It’s important to note that Wambach led a campaign to insert grass fields in the six Canadian World Cup stadiums. She was one of the many American players that joined a gender discrimination suit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association because the men’s World Cup has been played on grass. The players dropped the suit later because FIFA strong armed the national federations, and the players feared they’d be suspended if they persisted.

Comparing the Women’s World Cup to the Men’s World Cup is a futile exercise because they aren’t like entities. They don’t generate the same revenue and unfortunately don’t attract the same attention. This is not a gender issue because men play on turf all the time. This is a level of play issue.

The gender issues we should be examining are why there was only one bid for the Women’s World Cup in the first place, while the last three men’s World Cups are so lucrative they are suspected to be the subjects of bribery scandals. The fact that only one country that was willing to take the women’s tournament on was up front about its plans of playing on turf is not a gender issue. It’s a supply and demand issue.

Field turf is a surface all North American players are accustomed to—the way turf plays isn’t a surprise for the U.S. women coming into this tournament. Stylistically the USA has looked to play long balls more than their opponents and the chief target woman has been Wambach. The turf has less bearing on their style of play. The U.S. also has considerable more top quality depth than most competing nations. A tournament of attrition plays to their strength. You could make an argument that they should be the last team to complain about the turf because it caters to their intrinsic advantages.

The number 1 ranked team in the world, Germany, has a few hybrid surfaces back home but field turf is not yet popular. The Germans had no issues adapting to the synthetic surfaces—they’ve scored 15 goals in three games. Germany has more goals than any team in the tournament by far, more than Canada and the U.S. combined. During a press conference ahead of her team’s final group stage match against Thailand, German midfielder Melanie Behringer refuted Wambach’s comments saying, “We have demonstrated that you can score, so I don’t want to make this all about the turf. The ball acts differently, flies differently. But of course you can score.” In her heart of hearts Wambach knows that as well.

The issue is that Wambach herself isn’t scoring on a regular basis. She’s failed to convert chances that she once buried, and has only one goal at this tournament.

Wambach had three headers that were nearly goals in the first two games against Australia and Sweden. Striking the ball in mid-air with your head has little to do with the surface. Still, she brought the turf issue back into the news stream when she told reporters she believes she would have scored if the matches were played on grass.

“The two headers that I had that I missed in the first game I think I score if we’re on grass,” Wambach confessed.

Her reasoning was just as bizarre as her timing.

“Because I’m way more carefree (on grass),” she said. “I throw my body. I’m not worried about anything. There’s no second-guessing.”

If you aren’t willing to sacrifice rug burn in return for a World Cup goal, you don’t deserve the goal. Have the goalkeepers diving to stop USA shots or defenders lunging in for tackles been hesitant?

The United States might make it through to the next round, they might make it through the tournament unscathed, but the surface won’t be the reason they can’t play through balls. At some point Wambach needs to get that through her head and use her head, rather than excuses, to get through her slump.