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Turf War Growing in Women’s Soccer

3 Nov, 2014

By: Tracey Schelmetic
World Cup-Related Lawsuit Adds Allegations of Retaliation by FIFA and CSA

Call it a soccer turf war -- quite literally. When the Women’s World Cup of Canada takes place in June of next year, there’s a question as to whether the best female soccer players in the world will play on artificial turf or grass. For many players, only natural grass will do. Artificial turf, they say, causes more injuries and changes the way the game is played. Recently, the theory that artificial turf, which is often made of ground rubber tires, raises the risk of cancer, has also made headlines.

The events, which will be played at six sites over Canada, were scheduled to take place on artificial turf, but a group of female soccer champions filed suit early this month against FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) and the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA). The group claims that forcing women to play on inferior artificial turf is gender discrimination according to Canadian law.

“Men’s World Cup tournament matches are played on natural grass while CSA and FIFA are relegating female players to artificial turf,” said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Hampton Dellinger, in a statement. “The difference matters: Plastic pitches alter how the game is played, pose unique safety risks and are considered inferior for international competition.”

The suit was filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in Toronto on behalf of a group of about 60 plaintiffs from a dozen nations, including Americans Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. Plaintiffs filed the suit only after negotiations with FIFA and the CSA failed. FIFA, for its part, has remained adamant that the matches will happen on artificial turf.

When Canada made (and won) the bid for the Women’s World Cup, it specified that all games would be played on artificial turf. The CSA claims that harsh Canadian winters make preparing grass fields a problematic endeavor.  (This is a claim that critics have called disingenuous, since Germany and Sweden, two nations that also experience harsh winters, have hosted World Cup events on grass in the past.)

Last week, the Canadian Tribunal ordered FIFA to respond to the lawsuit by November 6 or risk losing the case by default, according to the LA Times. Players have indicated they would be willing to accept a negotiated solution, such as installing temporary grass over the turf, something that has been done twice before in men’s World Cup events in 1994 and 2013.  

The situation got even uglier on Monday, October 27th, when the plaintiffs’ lawyers added a complaint of retaliation to the suit against FIFA and the CSA. It was alleged that several players, including Teresa Noyola of Mexico and French players Camille Abily and Elise Bussaglia, were forced to remove themselves from any legal action for fear of retaliation from FIFA, according to the Web site Soccerly.

The suit claims that Abily and Bussaglia were targeted in particular because France is on the shortlist for bids for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The two players were allegedly “led to believe that their continued participation in this legal action would lead to retaliation by FIFA in the awarding of the 2019 Women’s World Cup,” according to the suit.

For its part, FIFA seems to be pleading ignorance. The governing body released a statement that read, “FIFA is aware of reports in the media of representations made to a tribunal situated in Canada in respect of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. However, FIFA has not been formally served with any legal materials related to those proceedings. Until FIFA has been properly served, it would be premature to comment on any allegations that have been made in those legal proceedings.”

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