UEFA has stepped up its studies into artificial turf for major football matches.
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UEFA is closely involved in the development of artificial turf for football matches – and its latest step is the issuing of an artificial turf manual. 'Artificial Turf in UEFA Competitions', published in the form of a CD-Rom, is destined mainly for the football authorities, but also contains a general description of football-related and technical requirements as far as artificial turf is concerned.
The CD, which is in English only, also contains two other sections, describing the specification criteria that are important for the turf manufacturer and test laboratories, and including recommendations on design, construction and maintenance.
It is the latest stage in UEFA activities in this field, which began several years ago, and which may one day culminate in the widespread use of artificial turf for major European matches as, for example, football's authorities look at ways of being able to play football in poor weather conditions on playing surfaces that are as close as possible to natural grass.
In conjunction with Rolf Hediger, a Swiss expert consultant in the field of artificial turf, UEFA began studying the synthetic surfaces available on the market in the past decade, and has intensified its involvement in the development process ever since.
Fine-tuning and improvement
Painstaking studies are ongoing. They include making comparisons between natural grass and the modern-day synthetic turfs with regard to interaction between the player and the field – running and falls – and between the ball and the field – rebounds, rolls and bouncing. These particular investigations are the latest phase in the process of constant fine-tuning and improvement, following initial ventures with artificial surfaces more than three decades ago.
"The first artificial turf was the Astroturf invented in the mid-1960s for the Houston Astrodome in the United States," says Mr Hediger. "It was just an artificial carpet used for baseball, and it wasn't good for football. Then in the late 1970s, artificial turf was introduced with wider-spaced fibre, and filled with sand. In fact, it wasn't artificial turf, because there was much more sand than fibres, so it was more a sand pitch, with the fibres holding the sand in place."
"This was installed at the Queens Park Rangers football stadium in England, and had no elastic shock pad underneath. It was a very hard field – the ball bounced high, and if a player made a tackle, he risked abrasions to the skin. This type of pitch was replaced very quickly again by natural turf, and from then on was only used for training pitches at amateur level."
Softer and more comfortable
Mr Hediger explains that in the wake of the experiences of 20-30 years ago, the objective of those working on the development of artificial turf through the years has been to make the surfaces not only softer and more comfortable, but as close to natural grass as possible. Through the years, players and coaches have been sceptical about playing on an artificial surface – but certain modern-day developments are bolstering the argument in favour of the use of artificial turf.
"The basic benefit of artificial turf up to now has been to have pitches for training," says Mr Hediger. "But players and coaches didn't like it for matches. I think that any type of acceptance or discussion would not have been possible without the problems that are now being faced by certain big stadiums, some of them with closed roofs."
Study and evolution
"The stadiums are closed, there is no wind coming in, the sun is partly shaded, and therefore the grass is not growing. UEFA has understood the benefits of artificial turf after seeing certain developments in this respect, and decided to become involved in the study and evolution process."
Six clubs sought
In the meantime, UEFA is looking for up to six professional clubs throughout Europe who would be willing to install an artificial turf in their stadium and play their domestic league matches on this turf for an entire season, with the consent of the national association and league concerned. The clubs selected would receive a subsidy from UEFA of approximately €204,000, and in return would be asked to co-operate with UEFA-appointed specialists who would undertake research into safety and medical aspects on the surfaces subsidised by UEFA. If the tests are positive, UEFA says it will officially introduce artificial turf in its competitions as from 2005.
"Artificial turf is the future, but it can still be improved;" says Mr Hediger. "The biggest problem now is when a lot of matches are played, the 'grass' lays down, unlike natural turf, which regenerates itself, so the roll of the ball will be affected. That is a problem for the industry to solve."
Good natural turf
Will a day come when all football matches are played on artificial turf? "In hockey for example, they don't play top matches on natural grass nowadays – but I don't think that football will ever be like that," says Mr Hediger. "If you have good natural turf in Europe, at venues where the wind can blow through and the rays of the sun are not obstructed, the grass will grow, and it will be a joy to play on. But artificial turf will become necessary in countries with unfavourable meteorological conditions and where many matches are played, and, as I have already mentioned, in the modern closed stadiums."
"Artificial turf will continue to make major progress, and I think that even in five or six years, people will be asking why there has been such a hard battle to win everybody over to the use of artificial surfaces for football matches."