A future on artificial turf
All 53 of FIFA’s African member associations will receive an artificial pitch from the world governing body by next year. The Win in Africa with Africa initiative is opening up new perspectives for football across the continent and is set to offer tens of thousands of players first-class training and playing facilities in future.
Markus Keller of Switzerland and Englishman Eric Harrison (the latter being the driving force behind the FIFA Quality Concept that regulates the manufacture of flawless football and artificial turf, amongst other things) are acting as consultants to FIFA for the Win in Africa with Africa initiative. The USD 70 million project was launched last year and is headed by Jerome Champagne, the FIFA President’s delegate for special affairs. Keller and Harrison are overseeing and inspecting the building of the sub-base and installation of the 53 artificial pitches before handing them over for their intended purpose.
Keller is the owner of an engineering consultancy for sports field design based in Lyon, France. The 58-year-old has been planning and building natural and artificial turf surfaces, running tracks and gymnasium floors to project and customer specifications for 30 years. Under FIFA’s “Goal” development programme, he has worked on 15 to 20 projects, often in the lead role.
An expert in the sports field, he has been a FIFA consultant since 2001. Initially he looked after one or two projects a year, but his workload has increased significantly in recent months. “I used to be abroad on business for about 50 percent of the year, in 2007 it will be as much as 80 percent,” says the construction engineer.
Keller has already traveled to some 26 countries on FIFA’s behalf, mainly in Europe, Asia and Africa. But his focus is now firmly on the latter. He heads the majority of the 53 “Win in Africa with Africa” projects and was a prominent guest at the premiere in the Republic of the Congo on 18 January 2007, when a premium-quality artificial pitch was opened at the new Stade Municipal in Pointe Noire.
FIFA has allocated a budget of USD 750,000 to each artificial pitch project in Africa. This includes all construction costs, the travel expenses of external experts, maintenance equipment, goals, nets, corner flags and substitutes’ benches. In ideal circumstances, a new sports field takes about three months to build and install – two months for the sub-base and one month for the pitch to be laid under the supervision of two representatives of the turf manufacturer. However, the work can take as long as six months, depending on the local situation and weather.
The 53 artificial pitches that are being installed in Africa will all satisfy the requirements of the FIFA Quality Concept and are therefore approved for all competitive matches. Pitches such as these have e lifetime of at least eight years – the period guaranteed by the 20 artificial turf manufacturers granted a license by the world governing body.
“It’s difficult to predict the lifetime of an artificial pitch, though,” says Keller. “It depends heavily on the quality, the maintenance, the weather and the demands placed on it. If a pitch is maintained well, it may be possible to use it for ten to twelve years.”
Maintaining the synthetic fibres, which are usually embedded in a layer of sand and then a layer of rubber granules, though some artificial pitches use no granules or granules only, is of vital importance. Operators should brush the pitch with a drag brush about twice a week, depending on the number of hours it is in use, and water it in hot weather. “Water cools the surface, which makes it more comfortable for the players, for example, because the pitch can get very hot in warm weather,” Keller explains.
Yet the Swiss national is well aware that watering an artificial pitch can be a problem, especially in Africa, as water is often an extremely valuable commodity in this part of the world. That is why the little water that is available in some places is poured down parched throats rather than on to artificial pitches.
There can be no doubt that artificial surfaces not only make sense in Africa, but are badly needed, as the climatic conditions on the continent are often extreme and pitches have to shared by dozens of teams. Africa has lots of grass pitches that in realty are not longer playable because they are used so often without being watered or maintained. A lack of alternatives, however, means they are still used for competitive matches at continental level or even World Cup qualifiers.
Artificial turf can help to remedy the situation in Africa and offer tens of thousands of youth, amateur and professional players first-class surfaces on which to play and train. The 53 countries that are to benefit from Win in Africa with Africa will each receive a one-star artificial pitch. Unlike the two-star surface, it does not have to be retested after twelve months, which at a cost of USD 15,000-20,000 is not a realistic financial proposition for many African associations.
The majority of the African qualifying matches for the 2010 FIFA World Cup TM are set to take place on an artificial turf, a surface that is more weather-resistant than natural turf. And the risk of injury on a modern artificial pitch is no greater than on grass.
Artificial turf technology has witnessed enormous advances in recent years. On the old nylon fibres, the ball used to zip across the surface and many players sustained painful abrasions after coming into contact with it. The use of longer synthetic fibres has made the pitches softer, and the roll and bounce of the ball has been matched to the needs of football. But what about skin abrasions? “You get them on every surface. If a player does a sliding tackle on a hard grass surface, he’s also likely to graze his skin,” says the recreational player Keller.
Natural and artificial turf, natural versus artificial turf – Keller knows there are advocates and opponents of both types of surface and familiar with the arguments for and against. “Opinion is divided on whether natural or artificial turf is better, even among experts. That’s not likely to change because there are pros and cons with both surfaces,” he says. “But in Africa, artificial turf is definitely the best solution.”