• Wed. May 22nd, 2024

FWC pitches update

FIFA pitch inspection

A FIFA delegation has visited the University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville to inspect the turf research & development (R&D) facility and meet with the teams who are working to create the perfect pitches for the FIFA World Cup 2026.

The FIFA Research Field Day was the first official get-together of pitch managers from all 16 host city stadiums and training sites for the FIFA World Cup 26. Representatives from FIFA member associations, confederations, leagues, clubs, and industry suppliers were also present as over 200 turf specialists discussed the challenges and opportunities for the FIFA World Cup 26 R&D project.

All 11 World Cup stadiums in the U.S. are home to NFL teams, and transitioning them to soccer fields involves removing seats to increase the size of the field. Some NFL stadiums use synthetic turf and will be transitioned temporarily to natural grass. No less than five of the 16 venues selected to host 104 matches over 39 days have fixed or retractable roofs. And because FIFA now requires all World Cup matches to be played on natural grass, that presents a significant challenge.

FIFA Chief Operating Officer World Cup, Heimo Schirgi was accompanied by Manolo Zubiria, FIFA Chief Tournament Officer – USA, Kaj Heyral, FIFA26 Director Infrastructure & Technical Services, Alan Ferguson, FIFA Senior Pitch Management Manager and Ewen Hodge, FIFA26 Senior Pitch Infrastructure Manager. Attendees were given the opportunity to inspect the pitch research facility at UT, hear from experts, and get an update on the status and learnings from the FIFA Research Project.

Pitch Management Team

When host cities and venues for the FIFA World Cup 26 were announced in June 2022, FIFA’s Pitch Management Team implemented an innovative five-year research and development project to produce the perfect pitches for the tournament. The project has a budget that has seven figures. FIFA partnered with UT and Michigan State University (MSU), two globally renowned research leaders who specialise in pitch management and player welfare, to deliver the largest ever sports turf research programme specifically for football/soccer.

The project includes collecting data from stadiums across North America. A team of students and technicians traveled to Mexico City to identify which grass varieties to use in high altitude venues.

The two lead professors from the universities working on this R&D programme were involved in the pitch development programme for the last North American FIFA World Cup™ in 1994.

“One of the easiest decisions I have made around this tournament so far was the partnering of Tennessee and Michigan State universities,” said Ferguson. “Both already had world-leading reputations, both already led by world-leading turf professors, I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, it was already here.”

With three host countries, 16 host cities, and varying sporting venues, time zones and climates, the tournament poses unique challenges for the delivery of uniform and consistent natural grass pitches.

It is also an opportunity to develop the optimum playing conditions for the biggest sporting event in history in 2026, as well as future tournaments around the world for years to come.

“It’s important that we get these pitches playing and looking as identical as we can. Whether it’s a stadium in Canada, in the Midwest US, or down in the mountains of Mexico, we want there to be consistency with what a player feels under his foot. For us, it’s all about the consistency of the playability for the player,” said Ferguson.

Obstacles across the 16 host stadiums, 84 training sites and 178 practice fields include grass maintenance inside fully-roofed stadiums, conversion of artificial pitches, variations in surface standards and differing grass types. The team is also testing turf for ball-to-surface interactions, athlete traction, and ease of maintenance.

Shade house

A state-of-the-art shade house was constructed at the Plant Sciences Unit at the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center of UT. Here the conditions inside a domed stadium are being replicated. Such structure is already in use at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium of Real Madrid, as we reported on here.

As FIFA works with sod farmers in host countries to grow turf off-site and turf will be transported to stadiums and transplanted in the weeks leading up to the tournament, MSU has a 23,000 sq ft asphalt pad installed on campus to replicate the concept of laying turf on stadium floors. Reducing the depth of the field and the sand and soil mix that lies on the concrete floor underneath should make this possible, thanks to the help of irrigation and artificial grass grow lighting. While a traditional pitch is about 16 inches deep, the indoor venues in 2026 will use fields more than half as shallow. The idea is that all 16 fields used in 2026 will look, feel and play almost identically, regardless of climate, what specific type of grass is laid, or whether it’s under a ceiling or open sky.

Dr John Sorochan, Distinguished Professor of Turfgrass Science and Management at UT, explained that the R&D could lead to both environmental and cost benefits. “Sustainability is kind of a unique component to this,” said Sorochan.

“The ability to produce a harvestable sod in as much as 16 to 20 weeks is paramount. We can do something really fast, and we can also cut down trucking costs, too. In theory, we can probably do this closer to urban areas and take up a large, vacated parking lot and actually grow the sod close to the stadiums, so you reduce transport costs as well.”

Dr John Rogers III, North American Turf Management Specialist from MSU, added: “If you can perfect this – which is what we are doing – you push turf grass science forward. You increase sustainability, you increase every part of the ability of the turf manager to be able to host multi-events in multi-use stadiums. It opens every avenue, and it’s the main reason that, for me, I got involved in this project.”

The pressure is on

FIFA was getting an increasing number of requests from host cities for updates on the research. Its 211 member organizations around the globe also are watching.

“The game is getting bigger,” Ferguson said. “There’s greater participation from member associations, so the pressure to understand the new style pitches and the new style stadiums just continues to grow. I think it would be quite a sensible thing for us to do to carry on.”

Guy Oldenkotte

Guy Oldenkotte is senior editor of sportsfields.info and has been covering the outdoor sportssurfaces market and industry since 2003

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