A revolution in football stadiums?

UEFA artificial turf consultant Rolf Hediger comments on UEFA's studies into synthetic surfaces.

By Rolf Hediger, UEFA artificial turf consultant

Football players prefer a perfect natural grass field above all other surfaces. But what about those pitches whose condition deteriorates at the end of the season, or those located in arenas where the new design of the tiers and the projecting roofs makes it impossible for the grass to grow? Natural grass indeed presents many acute problems. Moreover, is natural grass still a 'natural' product when it requires the use of so much fertiliser?

Serious problem
Three years ago, UEFA considered this problem serious enough for it to start investigating the synthetic surfaces available on the market. In the spring of 2000, it decided to have a synthetic field built in front of its headquarters in Nyon, western Switzerland.

Many studies
UEFA has been studying all the aspects and problems pertaining to synthetic surfaces used for football. The first step was to determine the nature of natural grass by measuring all its parameters. The results thus obtained were then compared with those obtained for the synthetic turfs of the new generation, which attempt as a matter of fact to replicate as closely as possible the qualities of natural grass. It is, of course, difficult to compare a natural, living material with an artificial, lifeless compound. Moreover, no thorough study of natural grass had yet been made to determine to what extent its properties could serve football.

Test laboratories
A group of test laboratories for sports surfaces (athletic fields, surfaces for indoor sport facilities, synthetic turfs for land hockey, etc.) has thus been given the task of testing natural grass in order to determine:
The interactions between the player and the field
· shock absorption (running and falls)
· field deformation due to the impact of the player
The interactions between the ball and the field
· ball roll
· ball vertical rebound
· ball rebound after a long pass

Maximum and minimum values
The results of these tests make it possible to establish a database used to define the maximum and the minimum values for each of the above interactions. These tests and their respective values (football-related criteria) are then applied to synthetic turfs. The synthetic turfs, which comply with those criteria, are called 'Artificial Football Turf Systems'. They consist of an elastic shock pad, synthetic fibres woven into a web (turf backing), and infill materials filling the space between the fibres, allowing the spikes to penetrate just as they do into the soil.

Natural grass tests
The tests made on natural grass have been carried out in stadiums whose pitches have been recognised as the best in the country by the respective national federations. Their results were compared with those obtained on football turfs. This comparison was in favour of the football turf for its comfort of play, suppleness, safety, traction (ease of movement of the foot on the turf) and the consistent, uniform quality of the fields.

Ball rebound
The ball rebound (vertical rebound and rebound after a pass) is very similar. Only the ball roll is, in general, shorter on natural grass, except in southern countries like Spain, where the ball roll is much longer than in countries further north. The results of these investigations, the football-related criteria and the recommendations for the construction of synthetic turf fields are published by UEFA in its 'Artificial Turf in UEFA Competitions' manual.

UEFA test certificate
Approved test institutes can now carry out tests on the quality of the turfs existing on the market. A UEFA test certificate is issued when a synthetic turf system complies with all the football-related requirements.

Associations' choice
What is the practical way forward to officially introduce artificial turf in competitions? It is, first of all, up to the national associations whether they want to accept the synthetic pitches for the highest level of competition (for professional leagues) in their respective countries. This is already the case for the Scandinavian countries, Russia, Austria (spring 2003) and soon also in France. A number of large stadiums are already fitted, or are soon to be fitted with a Football Turf System. Others will no doubt follow.

UEFA-subsidised installation
UEFA will continue to survey the development of artificial turfs during a period up to 2004. An expert group will be in charge of examining the various aspects of football turf, and to this effect, UEFA will subsidise the installation of five or six football turfs in different climatic areas in Europe for tests at professional level. The research will focus on the interactions between the players and the field (biomechanical tests), the safety of the players, the type of injuries (player-versus-field impact, and player-versus-player impact), in order to compare these injuries with those occurring on natural grass. If these tests are positive, the UEFA Executive Committee will ratify its decision taken in December 2001, and allow the use of Football Turf Systems for its competitions as from 2005.

No refusal
From that moment on, a club which has qualified for a UEFA competition would no longer be able to refuse to play if the field of the opposing club is fitted with football turf which has been installed according to the requirements, i.e. it has been field- tested and complies with the requirements, and its test is not older than two years. The national associations will have the possibility to adopt the UEFA criteria for their top leagues, and to be less restrictive for their lower leagues. The UEFA criteria apply, however, to all fields in the stadiums where UEFA competitions will take place (UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup, UEFA European Championship, etc.).

Best possible quality
UEFA will insist on artificial turf of the best possible quality, regardless of the price of the product, for its competitions. It is, of course, understandable that national associations apply less rigid standards in the lower levels of their domestic competitions. Here, we are thinking in particular about specifications concerning the technical infrastructure required, or the 'life expectancy' of a turf. UEFA is prepared to assist national associations in creating complementary technical and football-related criteria for its national competitions.

Successfully compete
If artificial football turf can fulfil all these requirements, it will successfully compete with natural grass - if only for the simple reason that these artificial surfaces retain their qualities even during the winter season.