When a new stadium is built, there are two options for the type of field that can be used: either opting for a traditional field (using real grass), or going with something artificial, using AstroTurf. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, however, from the point of view of the players, there is a clear winner between the two, with real grass being favoured.
The main reason that players prefer playing on grass over AstroTurf is simple: to prevent injuries. Normally, the grass and dirt would absorb the weight of someone stepping down onto it. This is not the same for synthetic surfaces, where instead, the majority of the force is absorbed by the player’s ankles and knees. This creates a lot more stress on the body, and increasing the chance of injury. Why is it, then, that some professional stadiums today still have AstroTurf?
The history of AstroTurf
The first artificial turf was invented in the 1960s. Known as ChemGrass, this short-fibre, dense, nylon carpet was positioned on top of a bed of soil, and first used in professional sports in 1966 in the United States. The name was changed several years later to AstroTurf, and several improvements were made to it, one of the biggest of which came in the early 2000s, when infill was added. This created a product which more closely resembled natural grass.
Synthetic turf proved to be the cheaper option over a natural field, as it needs less maintenance. It also does not need any water, keeps its colour over time, and is relatively easy to install. AstroTurf was quickly adopted by several sports teams in North America, and in 1999, Real Madrid became the first European football team to purchase an AstroTurf system for their practice field.
Several other clubs followed suit, with the artificial grass becoming more normalized as time went on. However, players and spectators alike began to realize that injuries were happening at an increased rate compared to before. People began to raise questions about the safety of these new playing fields.
Increased likelihood of injury on AstroTurf
In 1992, seven years before Real Madrid purchased their own AstroTurf system, John Powell, a professor at the University of Iowa, published one of the first papers showing the correlation between turf, and a higher chance of injuries. The injuries mentioned include torn ACL, concussions, ankle sprains, turf burns, and turf toe. In the years following, these injuries have become increasingly documented.
As a result, many teams have gone back to playing on natural fields. Back in 2007, after sustaining an ankle injury playing on turf, David Beckham stated “as a professional athlete, you can’t play a game like soccer on that sort of field”.
Last August, a rumour circulated online that Lionel Messi refused to play a match in Atlanta’s stadium due to it being played on turf. However, he debunked this in a press conference before the game. “The truth is my youth was spent on artificial turf, my whole life was on that pitch,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve played on artificial turf, but I have no problem adapting myself again.”
Many clubs in the US, where they get less funding than a lot of clubs internationally, choose to stick with turf as the cheaper alternative to maintaining a grass field.
Over the past few decades, there has been a growing movement towards opposing games being played on turf, with players and fans alike speaking out against it. Thankfully, the vast majority of games played between European clubs today are held on natural grass.
What does the future hold for Astroturf?
As players continue to be injured from Astroturf, as well as speak out against playing on it, fewer and fewer clubs are opting to use it as their surface of choice, even if it would mean saving some money. Many are hopeful that in the future, every league will hold the same viewpoint as players and spectators, with natural grass being the clear winner between the two surfaces.