• Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

The pitches for the UEFA EC 2024

ByGuy Oldenkotte

Jun 26, 2024
Erwin Beltman

Erwin Beltman was the head groundsman for stadium De Kuip in the Netherlands between 2013 and 2022. In that period, the field was 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 shares his observations about the fields used for the 2024 European Football Championship.

I have been watching the first week of the Euros with great curiosity. In 2006, there was hope that the FIFA World Cup would accelerate things to take off for Germany and for Germans in particular. Last week, I witnessed another “lift off” on several occasions. It was mainly the turf, something I regard as a major concern.

The German football league is known for its business case for how to attract a capacity crowd to the venue to attend a game. Their groundsmen have access to virtually any tool in the toolbox to ensure the pitch complies with the accompanying expectations. In the past few months, these professionals could also rely on the input of experts contracted by UEFA. At least, that is how the story goes. Having watched most games in the opening days, it was clear that pitches at the stadiums in Hamburg, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf, but also those at various training sites, are a reason for concern. Days prior to their game against Switzerland, Coach Julian Nagelsmann of the national squad of the hosting nation, openly expressed his fears that players would be injured on the Frankfurt pitch. He feared torn cruciate ligaments in particular, an injury that could end a player’s career. In the end, the game resulted in a boring draw, fortunately, without serious injuries, but one can wonder if the poor condition of the pitch was the cause of the lacklustre attitude among the German players. If that had been the case, the spectators who had paid handsomely to attend the game became the biggest victims. Like the English fans who bemoaned the pitch for their game against Denmark, they are the very ones who should be entertained.

Nothing new

The problems in Frankfurt are nothing new. In March, players of the Dutch national squad were already complaining about the slipperiness of the surface. Many blame the two NFL games that were hosted at the venue in November. These games left the (hybrid) pitch is such a sorry state that stadium management opted for a resurfacing. Unfortunately, the winter conditions in the weeks that followed did more damage than good to the pitch, something that became evident in the friendly game Germany played against the Netherlands.

Danish striker Yussuf Poulsen, who plays for RB Leipzig, argues that the problem in Frankfurt is more the norm than a single incident. Hence, he advised his teammates last week to fit lots of studs to the bottom of their shoes “to prevent the slipperiness that would undoubtedly set in after 20 minutes.” He had his prediction right to the tee. It is possible that he is spoilt, as the RB Leipzig groundsman is one of the best in Germany. However, it shouldn’t matter in the middle of the summer, during a Euro tournament.

Back to Frankfurt: Professor Steve Haake of Sheffield Hallam University told the BBC that it has to do with the high humidity in the stadium. The stadium has a roof that can be opened if necessary. “With 58,000 spectators breathing in and out and getting excited, you add thousands of pounds of extra moisture to the stadium bowl,” he believes. “Shutting out the sun and keeping the air humid doesn’t do well for the growing conditions of the grass.”

UEFA has now stepped in. “A detailed maintenance plan is ready to improve the surface for the upcoming matches,” a spokesman stated after the last game.

Not unique

The situation in Frankfurt is not unique. Hamburg, the Netherlands and Poland have experienced similar problems. There, all kinds of creases were still visible in the newly laid surface. That field has been replaced twice since the end of the season, which ended just over a month ago. Yet, by the time it was expected to perform, training sessions inside the stadium for the national squads of the Netherlands and Poland were cancelled on the eve of their encounter to protect the pitch. Fortunately, the problems did not manifest themselves during the game.

And anyone who watched France against Austria will have seen how the pitch in Düsseldorf resembled a checkerboard. That pitch has even been resurfaced three times since the end of the last campaign. First, it was resurfaced immediately after the final game. This was repeated three weeks later after the knock-out stages. As UEFA inspectors were unhappy with the result, they ordered another resurfacing. This was completed just days prior to the game between France and Austria.

The problems have not been confined to the stadium pitches. Both Austria and Switzerland have officially complained to UEFA about the state of their training pitches. Switzerland’s pitch was even replaced last week. And to keep the Belgian team happy, their groundsman Wim Fluyt shipped in 90 tonnes of dress sand from Lommel, Belgium, to better prepare their pitches.

What does this mean for the future?

Like the Netherlands, Germany has had to endure terrible weather conditions in the past few months. Nevertheless, they have enough expertise to re-sod fields just before a tournament. Having that said, you might wonder how desirable that still is with the weather conditions in question. And you can wonder whether event organisers have perhaps become too ambitious – that they have started to lean too much on the idea that modern techniques and turf science will rectify or solve all defects. Grass remains a natural product. This was also noted last weekend by Lionel Scaloni, the coach of Argentina. They are participating in the Copa America and had to play on a specially laid turf in Atlanta. That turf surface had been rolled out over the existing artificial turf. “It’s a good thing we won, otherwise I would have had a very cheap excuse to point out that we had known for seven months that we would play here, but, despite that, the pitch was laid only two days ago.”

It is to be hoped that FIFA and the 2026 World Cup organisers are paying close attention to developments in both Atlanta and Germany. They too intend to temporarily replace artificial turf stadium pitches with natural turf less than three weeks before kick-off, and, if at all possible, with turfs of less than 10 cm thick. Whereas heavy thick turf can still mask many problems, turf sods of around 10 cm is almost asking for trouble. However, FIFA’s choice is dictated by the desire to be able to replace the pitch during the tournament if necessary. How to make that possible is currently being investigated.

Meanwhile, a ray of sunshine seems to have broken through. I hope, for a lot of reasons, that it will continue to shine brightly for the time being. But with the Euros now only finishing the pool phase, I am holding my breath to see how the fields will turn out in the remaining weeks. One thing is certain: due to the demanding playing schedule, the pitches will certainly not improve. I therefore wish my colleagues in Germany to “break a leg,” or, as the German version goes: “viel Hals und Beinbruch.” I truly hope breaking something will not become a reality for one of the tournament performers.

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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