Canadaâ€™s minister for the status of women found herself in the unusual position of having to defend artificial turf on Tuesday.
Womenâ€™s soccer players from around the world say FIFA is forcing them to play on â€œinferiorâ€ artificial turf during the upcoming 2015 Womenâ€™s World Cup in Canada.
Players say they are being discriminated against based on gender. No elite-level World Cup soccer matches, neither menâ€™s nor womenâ€™s, have ever been played on artificial turf, their lawyers say.
â€œItâ€™s forcing women to compete under different conditions than comparable male players would compete under,â€ said Catherine Gleason-Mercier, an associate with Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, the Canadian firm representing the athletes. â€œThat in and of itself is an unfair discrimination based on gender.â€
Lawyers from Ms. Gleason-Mercierâ€™s firm as well as American firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP sent a letter to FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association on July 28, calling on organizations to â€œfix the field situation.â€ The letter, posted online by womenâ€™s soccer publication The Equalizer, said the artificial turf proposal is â€œdiscriminatory and violates Canadian law.â€
Lawyers called artificial turf â€œsecond classâ€ and said it puts players at a â€œheightened riskâ€ for injury.
Kellie Leitch, Canadaâ€™s minister for the status of women, disagreed on Tuesday.
â€œThe Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps have all played on artificial turf â€¦ Thousands of professional athletes play on these high-tech surfaces on a daily basis,â€ Ms. Leitch wrote in an email to the National Post Tuesday.
Ms. Leitch added that Torontoâ€™s Rogers Centre, artificially turfed since its opening 25 years ago, has hosted many elite-level international soccer matches over the years.
â€œIn short, while some of these players might prefer a grass surface, to say that playing on artificial turf is â€˜second-classâ€™ and constitutes â€˜gender discriminationâ€™ is not appropriate,â€ she said.
The Womenâ€™s World Cup matches are scheduled to run from June 6 to July 5, 2015, in cities throughout Canada. Venues include Vancouverâ€™s BC Stadium, Edmontonâ€™s Commonwealth Stadium and Montrealâ€™s Olympic Stadium, among others.
All venues currently have artificial turf, or will install it before the tournament, Ms. Gleason-Mercier said.
Several of the 2014 FIFA Under 20 Womenâ€™s World Cup matches, a tournament that began in Canada Tuesday, will be held on artificial turf fields.
â€œThe gender discrimination part is a tough one to swallowâ€¦ I canâ€™t see it as being right now a gender issue, [more so] mostly as a logistics issue,â€ said Shannon Pederson, a member of the board of directors of the British Columbia Soccer Association.
s. Pederson said the reality is that Canadian stadiums tend to have artificial turf. Technology has allowed for â€œgreat improvementsâ€ to surfaces over the years, she said, adding that FIFA closely inspected venues.
â€œThat being said, would FIFA ever consider the use of artificial turf in the menâ€™s tournament? Most likely not,â€ she said.
An official with the Canadian Soccer Association confirmed the organization received the letter and they are now waiting for direction from FIFA.
FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the National Post Tuesday.
American soccer star Abby Wambach has been outspoken in her criticism of the artificial turf fields. She has said players find it difficult to switch from grass to artificial turf and that the surface causes more injuries. Some say it is like playing on cement.
Ms. Wambach is one of the players involved in retaining legal counsel, along with other U.S. national team players, Mexican and German players, among others.
Ms. Gleason-Mercier said FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association did not respond to requests for a conversation with lawyers, but said players still want to talk.
â€œAt this point we want to have an open negotiation and conversation with FIFA and the CSA,â€ she said. â€œIn terms of next steps thereâ€™s nothing off the table, except for obviously a boycott. These players are committed to playing in this elite tournament and will play no matter what.â€