The push to get Canada to stage the Women's World Cup on grass instead of artificial turf is now a legal matter, with American star Abby Wambach and a group of players "fully prepared to go forward zealously and aggressively in court" to force a change, their lawyer said on Thursday.
The players, who have no plans to boycott next year's tournament, allege gender discrimination because the men's World Cup is always staged on grass. A lawsuit was filed Wednesday at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, naming FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association as defendants.
Attorney Hampton Dellinger said real grass could be installed at the six World Cup stadiums for $2 million to $3 million. Seeking an expedited hearing next month so that a ruling can be issued in time for the turf to be changed, Dellinger said that the tribunal on Thursday gave FIFA and CSA until next Thursday to respond to the filing.
"It is a drop in the bucket in terms of FIFA's coffers," Dellinger said. "Canada is one of the richest nations on earth."
The players say the game is inherently different on turf. The ball bounces differently, there's a greater risk of injury and the recovery period is longer — a particular concern in a tournament in which many games are compressed into a tight schedule.
"It totally changes the game," said Germany's Nadine Angerer, FIFA's reigning world player of the year. "It's not fair why our game should be changed."
Wambach, Angerer, American forward Alex Morgan, Brazil's Fabiana Da Silva Simoes and Spain's Veronica Boquete are among the players bringing the suit. They have been complaining about the issue for years — since Canada's proposal to play on artificial turf was accepted — and they sent a letter to FIFA and the CSA in July, saying they were prepared to take the legal action.
Since then, there has been growing support for the women on social media, with celebrities including actor Tom Hanks and NBA star Kobe Bryant joining the cause. Tim Howard, the goalkeeper for the U.S. men's team, also voiced his support on Twitter.
"We have to stand up and put our foot down and say, 'You know what? This isn't good enough. This isn't right and we deserve to be treated equally as the men,'" Wambach, the sport's all-time goal-scoring leader, told The Associated Press last month.
On Tuesday, a FIFA official visiting Canada ahead of the tournament next year said there were no plans to reconsider using artificial turf.
"We play on artificial turf and there's no Plan B," said Tatjana Haenni, FIFA's head of women's competitions.
FIFA, which is based in Zurich, issued a brief statement of Thursday.
"While we are aware of the recent media reports, at the time of writing we have not been officially contacted on the matter, and therefore we are not in a position to comment," the governing body said.
The women have lost some leverage by declaring they have no plans to boycott the World Cup. Angerer and Boquete reiterated that stance on Thursday.
"Right now, we focus on the lawsuit," Boquete said. "And we expect that FIFA and the Canadian federation will listen to us and try to find a solution. Right now we didn't think about more than that."
Former Canada standout Carrie Serwetnyk, the first woman inducted into her country's Soccer Hall of Fame, compared playing on artificial turf to running on a "cinder track" and said she expects more from her country.
"Women would play on a field of glass and nails for the World Cup, they're so dedicated and mentally tough, and that's the problem," Serwetnyk said. "We'll do that because they love the game. And the CSA and FIFA are getting away with putting the players on the artificial turf, and they know they can't do that with the men. Men would boycott, and this would not happen. So the women are put in an unfortunate position, where of course they're going to show up and play, and that's not the kind of tournament we want to have."
FIFA rules stipulate that matches can be played on artificial turf if special dispensation is granted, as happened in Canada's case. Canada's bid for the event specified that the final match be held at Vancouver's BC Place, which has artificial turf. FIFA regulations state that all matches in a tournament must be played on the same kind of surface.
FIFA has appointed an independent examiner to make sure the turf at the six venues meets its strict guidelines for top-tier tournaments. The consultant is traveling with a FIFA delegation currently inspecting the sites.
Many players believe that FIFA could cover the six fields with sod. The real stuff was rolled onto the artificial surface at Michigan's Big House this summer for a match between Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Serwetnyk said Canada's current players are in a bind when it comes to expressing their feelings on the matter.
"The CSA is their boss, and it's easier for players from other countries to express feelings. ... It poses a risk for the players, and they just want to focus on making the team," Serwetnyk said.
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson contributed to this report.
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