Regular followers of this blog will know that one of my passions is football (soccer, if you’re reading this in North America). It’s a truly social, democratic sport, in the sense that it can be played almost anywhere where there’s a patch of relatively flat ground, four jumpers/sweaters that can be put down to form goals, a minimum of two players and a ball. That’s fundamentally the only inventory that’s required for a form of football to take place.
Traditionally, football has been played on grass pitches, but these have the distinct disadvantage of getting very muddy and slippery in wet weather; and very hard and dusty during a dry spell. Neither set of conditions is really conducive to ‘good football’. And so over a long period of time, scientists and textile suppliers have been working on developing artificial playing surfaces that have all the attributes of grass, but with the added advantages of good drainage and consistent, regular playing conditions whatever the climactic conditions might be. An indirect consequence of these new surfaces is that they can be used really intensively (several times a day) without any significant deterioration in the quality of the playing surface. The most recent version of these pitches (Third Generation or 3G standard playing surfaces) are approved for use by the World Governing Body for football (FIFA) and recent qualification games for the European Football Championships in 2016 have been played on them.
Unfortunately, football is administered and controlled by a lot of very conservative people. Change is never easy, and even when a proposal offers enormous benefits for players, clubs and spectators, you cannot rely on the Game to do the sensible thing. Today saw a gold-plated example of this, when the professional football club chairmen who control teams in the third and fourth tiers of football in England voted NOT to approve the use of 3G pitches for matches in their league divisions from the 2015/16 season (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/29919748). The decision, when it came, was actually something of a surprise, given that the a majority of those voting today had given a clear indication as recently as September, that they would be supporting the proposal. The reasons for the change of heart are shrouded in mystery, but a contributory factor appears to have been fears about the safety of 3G pitches when compared with grass.
It is this that annoys me about the decision, because it is based on either ignorance of the evidence that already exists about the equivalence of grass and 3G pitches when it comes to the incidence of injury per minutes played on the two surfaces (see later references); or it is a wilful ‘blindness’ to that evidence as part of some misguided belief that football has to be played on a grass pitch and that’s all there is to it.
The irony is that where clubs in other leagues (for example in the Welsh Premier League) have invested in 3G pitches, the benefits are being seen not just in terms of the quality and consistency of the playing surface, but also in terms of income streams (as the pitches are used by other teams in the local community throughout the week for games and training), and increasing the connection of the club to the local community. In both respects, clubs in Leagues 1 and 2 of the English pyramid had much to gain from allowing the use of 3G pitches – increasing their sustainability (in terms of cashflow) and their place in their communities (fulfilling the social democratic ‘bargain’ that inextricably binds a club to its people and place).
It is to be hoped that it will not take too long for common sense to prevail, and for football clubs and governing bodies at all levels to recognise that football is the world game that it is because it has constantly evolved and embraced new technologies and approaches. For this football lover at least, the days when 3G pitches are the norm cannot come too soon.
Are 3G pitches safe to play on
The studies that have been completed to date make a clear distinction between the early days of astroturf pitches that were much less safe for players than the grass equivalent, and the newer iterations of the artificial surface, including 3G pitches. For the latter, all the evidence suggests that the incidence of injury expressed in terms of hours played is not significantly different than for grass. There is some evidence that the nature of injuries may be slightly different (especially in terms of ‘wear’ injuries), but even this is weak. You can read more at the references below