Abby Wambach, one of the most famous women soccer players in the U.S., is known for her headers. In the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, she scored an astounding last-minute goal against Brazil by heading the ball in, saving the team from elimination in the quarter-finals. (The team made it to the championship final against Japan.) Some of Wambach’s headers send her flying to the ground in acrobatic dives. But in the World Cup next year, Wambach won’t be taking that risk.
“I’m not going in for a diving header…no way,” she told the New York Times. Why skip one of her signature moves? Because next year, all the women participating in the World Cup will be playing on artificial turf fields instead of on grass ones, which means that executing certain plays will put them at a higher risk for injury. Top players argue that the change to turf is a case of discrimination: Though FIFA president Sepp Blatter has touted turf as “the future of soccer,” all of the men’s World Cup games in Brazil this summer were played on grass, and FIFA has not indicated that the men’s tournament will take to turf any time soon.
If men don’t have to play on turf, why should women?
“There’s not a person on the planet that would prefer playing on it, not even Sepp Blatter,” Wambach said.
Most coaches and players agree that playing on turf impedes players’ games. Not only is it more dangerous for Wambach to execute her impressive flying headers, but also sliding of any sort becomes more hazardous, say players. The increased friction on the turf can peel away layers of skin from knees, elbows and cheeks. And turf is harder than grass, which means concussions are more likely.
The women players argue that FIFA is using their tournament to test out the potentially hazardous playing conditions. “They are treating us as second class to the men,” another U.S. soccer star, Alex Morgan, told TMZ sports, “using the women as guinea pigs in their experiment is just not right.”
Wambach and many other players signed a petition last year asking FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association to use grass fields for the tournament. But the petition had no influence over FIFA’s decision, despite being backed by around 4,000 signatures.
So on July 28 of this year, lawyers for players from Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, the U.S., New Zealand and Costa Rica sent a three-page letter to FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association that said, “The proposal is discriminatory and violates Canadian law.” It went on to suggest several affordable ways that the tournament could be hosted on grass fields. The players threatened to take legal action against the organizations if they stuck with the original plan.
Changing direction would certainly cost FIFA, but the organization was expected to make about $2 billion from the men’s World Cup in Brazil this summer.
While FIFA hasn’t officially responded to the charges, it has gone out of its way to try to prove the quality of its turf in a 103-page document. But the problem, players argue, is not in the quality of the turf but in the lack of equality between male and female players. “It’s a gender issue through and through,” says Wambach. “This being the pinnacle of our sport, we feel like we should be treated just like the men.”