A group of nine senators from the United States just joined an increasingly ugly controversy over the upcoming Women’s World Cup, scheduled for this summer in Canada. At stake is the issue of artificial turf, which FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, has installed in three of the four stadiums commissioned for the World Cup, claiming that Canadian weather outside of Toronto doesn’t allow for growing natural grass fields. But the players, including stars Marta from Brazil and Abby Wambach from the United States, disagree, arguing that FIFA’s unwillingness to do what it takes to give them natural grass to play on constitutes discrimination, because players in the men’s World Cup aren’t expected to play on artificial turf. Marta and Wambach, along with other players, are suing FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association in Canadian court, citing the country’s strong anti-discrimination laws in hopes of forcing FIFA to allow them natural grass, which they say is safer and more conducive to good play.
They have the support of nine U.S. senators, who sent a letter to FIFA Thursday asking them to work with the players on this issue. In a statement, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said, “The Women’s World Cup features the most elite female players in the sport, and it is outrageous that they would be subject to a lesser quality artificial turf. I urge FIFA to do what is right, by allowing our female professional athletes the same opportunity to play on grass that male players are afforded.” The players are offering a compromise, agreeing to play on artificial turf for the initial rounds if they get grass for semifinal and final rounds, but so far FIFA isn’t biting.
Considering that FIFA isn’t letting nature get in the way for the 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar, which is going to require elaborate and expensive weather control systems to keep players from fainting after mere minutes of trying to play in that heat, the arguments about the expense for growing grass in Canada are a little difficult to swallow. The use of artificial turf is not completely unknown in the world of professional soccer. Some European soccer clubs use it, and it was used for the U-17 World Cup (for junior players) in 2007. However, this pattern suggests that, for FIFA, artificial turf is seen as acceptable for “lesser” games but that it’s grass-only at the most elite level. Putting artificial turf down for the Women’s World Cup feels like an official endorsement of the idea that the women’s sport is lesser than the men’s.
Of course, one could argue that the women’s sport is lesser than the men’s: exponentially less popular, less lucrative, with very few players that make much money at it at all, compared with the men, who are some of the highest paid athletes in the world. But if the women are ever going to have a shot at growing their sport, it’s imperative that FIFA doesn’t treat women’s soccer like it’s second-rate. It’s not as if the female players are demanding the same salaries, endorsement deals, or marketing as the men get. They just want to play on decent fields.