Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

World soccer's double standard offside

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The dispute over the turf on which women's World Cup games will be played next year is certainly an example of an uneven playing field. Men's World Cup games have never been hosted on artificial turf and won't for the foreseeable future. But next year when the games kick off in the six Canadian venues -- including at Investors Group Field -- all will be on fake "grass" that world-class women players argue is harder and more injurious to the body.

Elite, world-class soccer competitions have been and are played on artificial turf. But the presiding soccer organization, FIFA, would be hard-pressed to show the women are not being treated differently: Brazil's World Cup games this year were played on grass, considered best for play, and the next two men's World Cup tournaments to 2022 are all at grassed venues.

Today's polymer technology has improved the performance and usability of the turf. But slide-tackling on the artificial turf causes demonstrably serious "grass" burn. While the research is mounting but not conclusive, athletes report it's much harder on their feet. A letter to FIFA from more than 40 international soccer players said the turf at BC Place, where the final game is to be held July 5, 2015, is like "playing on concrete."

FIFA has investigated the fields in the six Canadian cities playing host to the games and found they meet the quality required. FIFA is moving toward greater acceptance and use of the more durable artificial turf because it is cheaper. In some locales, such as in countries in the northern hemisphere, grass in an unrealistic expectation for soccer games half the year.

The petition circulated by the international players has attracted widespread support, but it appears to hold the names of no women currently on the Canadian team. The letter says legal action -- claiming discrimination under a variety of global charters, including that of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- is contemplated if FIFA refuses to budge. The organization has yet to respond.

It will be a stretch for the women to press their case under the Charter, which covers public, governmental and quasi-governmental bodies. Their case may be stronger under legislation that governs sporting organizations.

Understandably FIFA wants to contain costs of world tournaments. This is not so much an issue for the men's World Cup, which brings in more than enough cash through sales, sponsorship and television broadcast revenues. The women's competition breaks even through sponsorship and ticket sales. Further, there was only one serious bidder for the women's competition and all of the venues but one, in Moncton, are on artificial turf.

Money is not an issue for FIFA. The women may have a good case to press their petition, however, if it can be shown the artificial turf exposes them to increased wear and tear on their bodies. The FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup underway is being played at the same Canadian venues their senior sisters will be meeting on next year. The group and FIFA should agree to measure whether play and safety are compromised on the fields. If so, then the effect of the different treatment is real and definable, and FIFA would essentially be defending it as "good enough" for women.

FIFA insists there is no difference in the game for men and women. If artificial turf is the new age of world soccer, the organization should be prepared to introduce men's World Cup competition to the same conditions. Reserving a preferential experience for men would signal the soccer federation supports a double standard in play.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2014 A6

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