A group of elite international women's soccer players is threatening legal action against FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, for gender discrimination.
The female athletes are upset that next year’s Women's World Cup tournament, hosted by Canada, will be played on artificial turf — something they say would never happen in a men’s tournament.
'There’s no doubt that the men would not be asked to play on a second-class surface.' —Hampton Dellinger, lawyer representing players
“We just saw the World Cup in Brazil. We just know there’s absolutely no way the men would play on fake grass. It would be a scandal,” said Carrie Serwetnyk, a former national player who founded the non-profit organization Equal Play.
“So to think it’s OK for the Women’s World Cup to be played on artificial turf, what kind of a message does that send?”
Serwetnyk said she got involved in the legal campaign to hold FIFA and Canadian soccer authorities accountable.
“The lawsuit takes it to another platform. It means the powers that be will have to take responsibility,” Serwetnyk said, adding that professional-level soccer competitions should always be played on real grass.
“Soccer is all about touch. [Real grass] is a better touch. During the World Cup, we saw players go sliding and landing in all kinds of directions. They have the privilege of landing on grass, which isn’t as hard,” she said.
The group of women recently sent a letter to Canadian soccer officials and FIFA president Sepp Blatter saying artificial turf is a "second-class surface."
“We know there’s no doubt that the men would not be asked to play on a second-class surface for their world class tournament. They weren’t this year in Brazil, it’s already been established that the men’s World Cup tournaments in 2018 and 2022 will be on grass. There’s no reason the women should be treated as second-class,” said Hampton Dellinger, a lawyer representing the group of players.
The games will be played in six different cities: Montreal, Ottawa, Moncton, N.B., Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver.
In Moncton, the stadium’s soccer field had been grass, but the city was ordered by FIFA to convert it to artificial turf for this summer’s Under-20 Women's World Cup.
"There's certainly a very credible range of evidence that artificial turf poses a greater and unique danger versus grass pitches, particularly at the highest level. Obviously the only place you can have turf burns — and these are serious, they can really be incapacitating to a player — is on an artificial pitch," Dellinger said.
It cost $1.5M to convert the field to artificial turf. The city paid for one-third of the tab.
Serwetnyk said Canadian officials are not standing up for equality.
“It’s a signal saying women’s soccer doesn’t matter so much…Canada has a responsibility to send a message of equality for such an event.”
The women’s letter to FIFA and to Canadian soccer officials says that beyond the inequality, being forced to play on the turf is a form of gender discrimination that violates Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Canada has made a commitment in its provincial human rights codes, in its national charter, that gender discrimination is prohibited,” Dellinger said.