Erwin Beltman was the head groundsman for stadium De Kuip in the Netherlands between 2013 and 2022. In that period, the field was elected voted the best stadium field in the Dutch Eredivisie eight times in a row. These days, he works as a consultant and shares his experiences about achieving good turf pitches on Sportsfields.info. Today he reviews the 2022 FIFA World Cup fields.
The football World Cup in Qatar had everything a groundsman could wish for: an exciting experience, good games and no complaints or issues with the grass that made it to the headlines. On the contrary: the 2022 FIFA World Cup will go down as one of the smoothest football tournaments, with high-quality games and a final result that satisfied many. That’s good for the sport. The competition itself really kept me captivated, but in terms of the various stadium surfaces, I enjoyed a relaxing experience. They all looked well and I didn’t pick up any issues. And if the various players I have spoken with since are anything to go by, the fields at the various training facilities were even better. Praise to all groundsmen and their crews because, considering the numbers, they pulled off a massive achievement: 64 games at 8 stadiums in just 29 days in a country that, in fact, lacks all the natural conditions to achieve a good quality natural grass pitch. It was truly a job well done!
Nevertheless, I made a few observations, starting with all the entertainment activities prior to the game. They increasingly left their mark on the field as the tournament progressed. I do understand that those shows and performances are an important element of the event, but if that results in an impact on the field that can clearly be seen before a single ball has been kicked, then, as far as I’m concerned, the priorities should be reassessed. I’ve been told that, as the tournament progressed, the activities on some of the fields were adjusted and reduced in the interest of the grass surface.
Interestingly, teams were not allowed for this tournament to train inside the stadium on the day prior to their game. As far as I know, this was a first. Somehow, I can understand this decision, as, during the group stages, matches were played at every stadium every other day. And with 84 training accommodations available, the teams had plenty to choose from to practise elsewhere. At the same time, I do question the decision to play the tournament in so few stadiums. The last time the World Cup was played in fewer than 10 stadiums was in the US in 1994. However, that tournament saw only 24 contenders. Therefore, I hope that, despite all the supporting technologies groundsmen had at their disposal, FIFA realises that with 8 stadiums, it has really reached the lower limit. More stadiums in more host cities will also make the tournament accessible to a larger group of people.
The green stains on many of the shirts gave away that dye was used on some of the fields. In a way, this is remarkable, as its colour and ability to maintain the colour were some of the reasons why the particular grass had been chosen. On the other hand, I should note that I have hardly seen any damage to the surface. This is partly because hybrid fields were used, but it is quite possible that paint was used to mask some of the damage.
Another activity that became more visible later in the tournament was the extensive use of synthetic turf. All games in the tournament were played on hybrid pitches, but if you look closely at the images of the final in the Lusail stadium, you will see that the goal mouths were, in fact, converted to full synthetic turf surfaces. Here, supporting synthetic turf fibres had been injected at a very high density. I found that disappointing, as there are ample techniques and technologies to patch up the area by using only natural turf.
I also noticed that the assimilation lights were rolled out onto the pitch immediately after the game and that this was mainly done manually, as if a tractor would damage the surface. Where, in Europe, we want to vacuum the surface immediately, in Qatar, it seemed that as much grass growth as possible was preferred. Or maybe they wanted to dry the surface, as they sprayed a lot of water on the turf to achieve a faster game.
Motivation to invest
Qatar seized the organisation of the World Cup to invest heavily in the country, while FIFA, apparently, has earned over USD 7.5 billion from the 2022 World Cup. About USD 440 million has been distributed to the participating countries. World Champion Argentina has earned USD 42 million, while runner-up France has received USD 31 million. Both countries can be viewed as so-called football superpowers, which is why I am extra happy for Croatia and Morocco, in particular, with the performance of their national team. Following their 2nd place in the FIFA World Cup of 28, the 3rd spot this year has earned Croatia an additional USD 27 million, while Morocco, which started the tournament as an outsider, earned USD 25 million. I sincerely hope that these, but also all other participating associations, will invest a considerable part of that income in fields and surfaces as well as the maintenance teams – not just the stadium fields used for the highest competition, but particularly those at grassroots level. FIFA definitely has a point when it claims that football is the world’s most accessible sport. But if it wants to continue to earn such astronomical amounts in the future, we will have to continue investing in the players of that future. Lionel Messi is an exceptional player but was fortunate that, for most of his life, he played on well-maintained pitches. The same applies to Kylian Mbappé, who was, once again, crowned top-scorer. Investing a small portion of their income in quality surfaces for grassroots football will be the best guarantee that the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar will make a lasting, positive difference. That will also be the best guarantee that we will continue enjoying this calibre of players in the future.
Erwin Beltman is a former groundsman of Stadium De Kuip in Rotterdam. Between 2013 and 2022, the stadium field was voted the best stadium field in the Dutch Eredivisie eight times in a row. Today, he is director of Master in Grass and consults and advises fellow groundsmen.
The views or information he shares in his articles are not necessarily the views of the publisher.
In February I will discuss how the fields have performed since the league has resumed.