Luke DeCock

DeCock: On the surface, it's second-class treatment for women's soccer

The lush green grass of WakeMed Soccer Park stretched out behind Abby Wambach as she spoke Tuesday, a finely manicured surface ideal for any level of soccer, but especially Wednesday night’s meeting between the United States Women’s National Team and Switzerland.

The teams could meet again next summer in Canada at the Women’s World Cup under significantly less comfortable conditions. All six venues where FIFA intends to play the tournament use artificial turf.

Wambach, understandably, wants to change that. Along with U.S. teammates Heather O’Reilly and Alex Morgan, she is among 40 elite players worldwide who are threatening FIFA with a lawsuit demanding the tournament be played on grass. Just like the men.

“It’s not a huge ask,” Wambach said. “It’s a money issue. At the end of the day, playing on these fields, these beautiful stadiums, grass pitches, the game is different. People slide. People dive. People put their bodies on the line because they’re mindful and they understand this grass is forgiving. Turf isn’t.”

In a letter to FIFA, dated July 28, the players argue that forcing the women to play on artificial turf is gender discrimination in violation of Canadian law and ask FIFA to switch to “affordable” and “acceptable” grass surfaces. So far, lawyer Hampton Dellinger said, there has been no substantive response from FIFA or the Canadian soccer federation.

Dellinger, of the Washington, D.C., law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner – which helped represent Ed O’Bannon in his successful lawsuit against the NCAA – grew up in Chapel Hill, lives in Durham and pursued the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor in 2008.

He’s also a longtime UNC women’s soccer fan who occasionally writes about soccer for The News & Observer. That left Dellinger uniquely positioned to take up the players’ case when he heard them complaining about the situation. It didn’t take much research to confirm his hunch.

“The idea that the final of the Women’s World Cup would be played in some ways on concrete is just a travesty,” Dellinger said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “We think it’s clearly not lawful under Canadian or international law.”

Artificial turf isn’t uncommon in soccer, particularly in places where economics or climate intrude, from Scandinavia to high school and college fields here. Both MLS and the current U.S. Women’s professional league have teams that play on artificial turf, and FIFA permits it for international play it as long as it meets certain standards.

But artificial turf, abrasive and unforgiving, unquestionably makes for a different style of play, and it’s impossible to imagine the men’s World Cup being played on anything but grass.

“When talking about the pinnacle of our sport, the biggest tournament, and quite frankly FIFA’s budget is the biggest of any corporation around football, it to me is a no-brainer,” Wambach said.

Taking on FIFA is no easy task. It’s a monolith, with deep reserves of both cash and sanctimony. The plan to play on artificial turf was part of Canada’s original bid back in March 2011, but as the tournament approaches, and the reality sets in, the players have to believe there’s a better alternative out there.

“We sure hope so,” O’Reilly said. “Anytime you can ask the question, ‘Would this happen to men?’ and the answer is ‘No,’ I feel like it’s a valuable stance to take. We don’t know what’s going to come of it, but we’re hopeful they’ll change their minds.”

Turf technology has advanced to the point where temporary grass fields are common. (And were an alternative as far back as 1994, when World Cup games were played on grass at the Meadowlands and inside the Pontiac Silverdome – including one, coincidentally, between the Americans and the Swiss.) It’s really just a question of spending the money to do it.

Artificial turf is often blamed for everything from road rash to knee injuries, but it’s FIFA’s second-class treatment of the Women’s World Cup that really hurts.

“There are a number of feasible, affordable ways to fix the mistake,” Dellinger said. “The ball is on their pitch.”

Their artificial pitch.