Published online 9 June 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news060605-15

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Perfect pitch: artificial turf makes a comeback

Could synthetic grass be better than the real thing?

Synthetic turf may no longer be on the sidelines of the professional game.Synthetic turf may no longer be on the sidelines of the professional game.© Getty

Artificial grass has long been viewed as a poor substitute for the real thing. But synthetic turf may finally be set to take root in professional soccer, and officials may even consider the possibility of using it for the next World Cup in 2010.

Artificial grass has come a long way since its invention in the 1960s and its debut in professional-level sport at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, where it was dubbed 'Astroturf'. Now, instead of the woven nylon rugs, artificial grass has taken on the look and feel of real grass. And leading soccer organizations such as the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and the Union of European Football Association (UEFA) are giving it a second look, after several widely derided attempts to introduce it into the game in the 1980s.

"Artificial turf was once considered glorified carpet laid over concrete," says Michael Meyers, director of the Human Performance Research Laboratory at West Texas A&M University in Canyon. But he claims that the latest generation of artificial turf is "equal to or better than grass".

“Artificial turf was once considered glorified carpet laid over concrete.”

Michael Meyers,
West Texas A&M University

These synthetic turfs consist of plastic strands that are inserted as tufts into artificial 'soil' made up of sand and rubber pellets. In some versions, the strands are reinforced by plastic coils.

There are so many kinds of artificial turf that Meyers says it's like "trying to compare Ford to Chevy, they're similar but dissimilar".

And with the price of a new pitch coming in at up to US$1 million, the latest imitation grass is not cheap. But its creators say that after a couple of years it pays for itself, as there is little maintenance involved compared with natural grass, which requires a talented groundskeeper.

Grassed up

Artificial grass was first created for use in environments that do not favour natural grass, such as indoor stadiums, or cold or dry regions. But the first generation of artificial turf, trialled by several British football clubs in the 1980s, was not well received by soccer players or fans. The ball's amazingly high bounce was a constant source of frustration for players. Injuries also worsened, and players suffered rug burns and stubbed feet, known as 'turf toe'.

"The key with artificial turf when you match it to soccer is that it's got to fit the way the game is played," argues John Baize, managing director of the artificial-grass company Global Sports Systems, based in Texas. "We designed the system around the sport."

With a lot of biomechanical testing, Baize's and other artificial-turf companies have made the grass taller to allow the ball to roll, and added sand and rubber for better shock absorbency and player manoeuvrability around the field.

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Injuries and abrasions have also been reduced by the newer and softer generation of artificial grass. In 2004, Meyers discovered that rates of serious injuries among professional American football players had been reduced since the advent of the new turfs1.

UEFA and FIFA are impressed with the improvements, and the former has already certified some artificial grass strains for use. In 2001, FIFA produced a set of laboratory standards for artificial-grass companies to follow. The agency ruled in 2003 that artificial turf could be used for its matches, and it was played on that same year at the under-17 world championship in Finland's Töölö stadium, and again at the 2005 under-17 championship in Peru.

At the moment, all World Cup games are played on natural grass, and purists couldn't imagine it any other way. But at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, artificial grass may in fact look greener.

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West Texas A&M University

  • References

    1. Meyers M. Am. J. Sports Med., 32. 1626 - 1638 (2004). | Article | PubMed |