By Paul Kennedy
It's a tribute to the star power of the U.S. women's national team that its fight to have grass installed at the six Canadian venues for next year's Women's World Cup has gained so much attention. It's also a testament to the blindness of FIFA higher-ups that the case of #GrassNotTurf won't die.
The connections of U.S. national team players like Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, the most outspoken critics of FIFA's stance, certainly help as they have drawn support in social media from the likes of basketball stars Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durantand actor Tom Hanks. Up until now, FIFA has been largely silent on the issue, leaving it open to attack on all sorts of fronts.
The players' argument is that playing on artificial turf instead of grass as is used at the World Cup will force them to play on a “second-class surface” and “degrades the women’s game.” The problem arises because most Canadian stadiums have artificial turf, Canada was one of the only serious bidders for the 2015 Women's World Cup, and FIFA did not require in its bidding guidelines that only grass surfaces be used. (Canada has recently been public in its desire to bid for the 2026 World Cup, which would likely require grass surfaces.)
Five of the six Canadian Women's World Cup venues already had turf, and the sixth, Moncton Stadium, was converted from grass to turf, at FIFA's insistence, to make all the surfaces the same. The conversion at Moncton Stadium left Toronto's BMO Field as the only one of four Under-20 Women's World Cup venues with grass, but Toronto, which will host instead next year's Pan-American Games, won't be a Women's World Cup venue.
FIFA's blindness on gender issues is nothing new, but it has meant it has taken a beating on the p.r. front. FIFA president Sepp Blatter was not in Montreal for Sunday's Germany-Nigeria final, instead taking part in his hometown FC Visp's centennial celebrations over the weekend. He was in Montreal at the beginning of the tournament and suggested that new versions of turf are much improved over that used 20 years ago and they meet FIFA standards. (Tell that to MLS players who play on the turf at Vancouver's B.C. Place, which will host the 2015 final.)
The solution would be to lay grass surfaces over artificial turf as is done -- albeit on only a one-off basis -- for international matches in the United States. No one has put a price tag on the cost of maintaining six grass surfaces for as long as 30 days -- the length of the Women's World Cup, which has been expanded from 16 to 24 teams -- but it has been repeatedly suggested that FIFA has the money, given the $2 billion in profits it made off of the 2014 World Cup.
FIFA's problem is that it does a terrible job of explaining that it doesn't have $2 billion sitting around in some Swiss bank for Blatter to count at his leisure each day. Those profits pay for the costs of all FIFA's other competitions and its development programs. It keeps huge sums in reserve because it self-insures -- it doesn't have insurance against the World Cup being canceled because of a catastrophic event. (Such a document "Setting the record straight" exists, though no one has heard of it.)
Through the years, FIFA has budged on a host of issues -- it now pays out to clubs huge sums from its World Cup money to "borrow" players during the tournament and compensates them when players are injured as these clubs -- mostly European -- have gained power. The women's players have threatened legal action against FIFA and the CSA, the Canadian federation, and retained Boies Schiller & Flexner (Boies as in David Boies) in the United States and Osler Hoskin & Harcourt in Canada, but the case for #GrassNotTurf will ultimately decided by how its resonates elsewhere -- does anyone care about women's soccer outside the United States?
If the #GrassNotTurf campaign demonstrates one thing, it is the enormous popularity of the U.S. women and the huge opportunity the 2015 Women's World Cup will be for Fox -- in its first FIFA event as rights-holder -- to draw big audiences for its coverage like ESPN did for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when it also had the advantage of favorable time zones.
As Hanks tweeted, Canada 2015 will be the "best soccer of the year." At least in American eyes.
Roster watch ...
Just who will Jurgen Klinsmannpick for the first post-World Cup match against the Czech Republic on Sept. 3? A second match six days later was canceled, leaving Klinsmann in the uncomfortable position of organizing a single match -- on a Wednesday -- during the first double fixture window of the fall.
Klinsmann will likely use the match in Prague as a chance to get his European-based players together for a couple of days. The problem is, many of them aren't playing. (Of the nine field players on the 2014 U.S. World Cup team in Europe, only Mix Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya started over the weekend.)
That raises the question, what new players will Klinsmann call in? A Prague friendly may not be the occasion for him to call in new players from MLS (or Mexico), but he could get his first look at a few players in October when the USA will play at least one home game.
Klinsmann's policy has been to take players from teams that are winning, so those who might get serious consideration for their first call-ups include central defenders Matt Hedges (FC Dallas) and Chris Schuler (Real Salt Lake), midfielders Perry Kitchen (D.C. United) and Wil Trapp (Columbus) and forwards Gyasi Zardes(LA Galaxy) and Luis Silva (D.C. United). In Mexico, the one Tijuana player who has yet to be called up to the national team but is starting regularly is 23-year-old left back Greg Garza.
The most intriguing candidate is not yet a U.S. citizen. FC Dallas rookie Tesho Akindele has come out of nowhere -- Division II Colorado School of Mines, to be exact -- to become the leading candidate for MLS Rookie of the Year. Many of the other uncapped prospects play at positions where Klinsmann (in the short term) has depth, but he can never have too many strikers like Akindele, a player with range and strength in the air. (He got a lot of attention for his hat trick against San Jose, but equally impressive was his work to set up Fabian Castillo for the second Dallas goal against RSL.)
The 22-year-old Akindele was born in Calgary to a Canadian mother and Nigerian father but grew up in the Denver area. He played for Canada's U-17s -- crucially, not in an official competition -- but has yet to play for the senior Canadian team. He won't be with Canada when it faces Jamaica on Sept. 9 in Toronto.
In what could be good news for U.S. fans, Akindele told MLSSoccer.com after Friday's Dallas game that he hopes to receive his U.S. citizenship within the next month.