As of this season, clubs in the highest Dutch football competition, the Eredivisie, can earn an incentive of up to 350,000 euros per club per season when their natural grass or hybrid stadium surface meets newly introduced quality criteria. The aim is to encourage clubs in a league with the highest synthetic turf density in the world to invest in a natural grass or hybrid surface.
Dutch football clubs were amongst the first around the world to embrace synthetic turf, with SC Cambuur Leeuwarden and Heracles Almelo embracing the surface in 2003 already. Much to the dismay of several coaches and players, the number of clubs in the Dutch Premier League and Championship playing their home games on synthetic turf grew to 18 last season, almost half of the clubs playing in these leagues.
In 2018, the Dutch FA launched a plan in a quest to lift football in the Netherlands to an even higher level. “One of the pillars of this so-called drive for change is the creation of equal competition conditions in the Eredivisie. This includes a high-quality natural grass or hybrid stadium pitch,” explains Eredivisie CV Project Manager Aukje Geubbels. “Clubs in the Eredivisie that play their matches on a synthetic turf pitch are therefore encouraged to switch to a natural grass or hybrid pitch, while all clubs in the Eredivisie are encouraged to play their matches on a high-quality pitch. Clubs in the Eredivisie which play their matches on a high-quality hybrid or natural grass pitch receive an incentive for good pitch management.”
The money that is paid is funded by the Dutch clubs that play in the Champions League or UEFA Europa League. “These clubs contribute 5% of the income in the group stage and 3.75% of the income in the knockout phase,” notes Geubbels. The maximum amount to be paid out is set at 350,000 euros per club per season. Clubs that play in the Champions League or UEFA Europa League are not entitled to the incentive.
A quality standard was developed to enable the condition of the fields to be assessed objectively and correctly. Testing institute Sports Labs has been appointed to establish the condition of the field. “We see ourselves as forerunners, when you look at other competitions in Europe that do not have quality standards and only follow the guidelines that UEFA and FIFA dictate for European matches and international games,” says the ECV project manager. “Other competitions are already showing interest in the standard and the way it is applied in the Netherlands.” The pitch conditions are verified at three moments during the season. “The first settlement will take place once the European football group stages have been concluded. The clubs whose stadium field has already passed two inspections at that time will receive a first settlement.”
The latest development satisfies the Association of Contract Players (VVCS) in the Netherlands, which has been arguing for good fields in the Eredivisie for years. For the past few years, it has been organising an annual competition to draw attention to the opinion of the players about the fields. “To perform internationally, you will have to play on grass, preferably on grass pitches of the same quality,” explains VVCS chairman and former player Evgeniy Levchenko, on the same day that Ajax player Dusan Tadic criticised the synthetic turf in the Eredivisie. “I understand that clubs have a contractual obligation or that they play on synthetic turf because it involves less maintenance, but you have to pursue a fair competition. In addition, you must want to prevent players from being taxed differently. Playing on synthetic turf simply puts a different strain on tendons and muscles and gives the home team an extra advantage,” he adds. According to him, the standard will certainly be useful in winter when many fields are hard or barely playable. “There is certainly still some work to do for some of the clubs.” While a standard has been introduced, the VVCS will continue its annual competition. “The opinion of the players remains important and the feedback we collect can reflect well on the Dutch FA and Eredivisie CV. As far as we are concerned, our reports that we publish during the winter break and at the end of the season remain a good indicator.”
Room for improvement
The new quality standard and incentive have been well-received. Sparta FC has decided to replace its synthetic turf pitch this summer while Cambuur FC will follow suit in 2023. Field managers of clubs throughout the league are also pleased. Erwin Beltman of Stadion de Kuip, the home ground of Feyenoord FC, admits he is a bit more nervous “because it involves a lot of money.” He and his team have won several trophies in various competitions over the years that recognise the quality of the field. Nevertheless, he has a few points of attention. “We must avoid comparing the quality of our fields between the stadiums. We should only use the results of the three test moments per season to interpret the status and progress of our own field.” Despite the small size of the Netherlands, the situation of De Kuip stadium and the Grolsch Veste in Enschede, the Euroborg stadium of Groningen FC or even the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam are too different, he points out. Gertjan Hilarius, who is responsible for SC Heerenveen’s stadium field, echoes this sentiment. “Meeting the criteria depends very much on where a stadium is located. Every stadium has its own climate,” he notes. “The design of our stadium makes it difficult for us. The field gets little natural light and air. Moreover, we often have to deal with lower temperatures here, which have an impact on the grass.” In his view, “The standard itself makes it easier to account for certain activities and investments to the board of the club.”
Another point of contention Beltman has is the variety of surfaces currently being used in the league. “Stadium De Kuip has a 100% natural grass field. However, there are also clubs that play on a 100% synthetic turf pitch, while the concept of hybrid pitches can be split into two different types of systems: hybrid pitches where the synthetic turf yarn is stitched into the natural grass surface, such as the Desso Grassmaster, and the hybrid pitches where the synthetic turf yarn is fixed to a backing.” Examples of the latter are the Hatko Hybrigrass and Tarkett Playmaster solutions. With the 100% synthetic turf fields expected to comply with the FIFA Quality Pro criteria and all other fields expected to comply with the new Dutch quality standard for natural turf, Beltman believes that each of the four systems has their own challenges to meet a common quality criteria.
Level playing field
KNVB Accommodation Manager Patrick Balemans also points out that the standard should not be seen as a competition on its own. “The basic principle is that the football players will experience the same playing conditions in every stadium. The standard and any advice given with regard to maintenance should provide the field managers with tools to ensure that the field is always the same.” He points out that all test results are discussed with the field manager and the club and that the FA is available to provide further guidance.
To enable the clubs to assess and monitor the progress of their field themselves, each club in the Eredivisie will receive a testing kit early 2022. A roll-out of the entire program to clubs in the second division is currently still being discussed, while a roll-out to clubs at grass roots level is not immediately envisioned. “We are still discussing this with the Association of Sports and Municipalities, among others,” Patrick Balemans notes. He does, however, cordially invite clubs and municipalities to take note of the information in the standard as soon as it is published in early 2022. “Ultimately, the goal of the standard is to achieve a good and healthy turf. When successful, algae, fungi and diseases will have less chance to establish in the grass.” Embracing the standard for natural grass pitches in the management of football fields in the lower divisions and competitions can therefore certainly also help the clubs and municipalities to implement the objectives of the Green Deal Sports Fields, an initiative that aims to ban the use of herbicides and pesticides in the maintenance of sports fields.
Click here to see how the Dutch FA judges the quality of a natural grass stadium field