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Research: Artificial turf versus natural grass

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Recent studies have shown that third and fourth generation artificial pitches are no more likely to cause injury than grass pitches. 

However, PFA’s Senior Executive, Simon Barker, who chairs the Playing Surfaces Committee in Professional Football states: “Some recent academic research into injuries sustained from using third and fourth generation artificial pitches appears to show that there is no more chance of injury than from playing on a natural turf pitch. However, the PFA has many doubts over the veracity of this research and that their conclusions do not always match the experiences of our members in a recent survey conducted by the PFA. 

“As it stands, to my knowledge there has been no research into the potential long term risks of playing on these surfaces and so we feel that to protect our members long term health, artificial pitches should not be used in the Premier League and Football League. A recent consultation by the Football League and voted for by their Club Chairman last summer mirrored this view.” 

"It is our member’s view that they would much prefer to play on a good quality natural turf pitch."Simon Barker, PFA Senior Executive.

Barker added: “There are obvious benefits to playing on artificial surfaces in countries where there are extreme weather conditions and where there isn't a good quality natural turf pitch but the improvement in technology in natural pitches has improved dramatically alongside artificial surfaces. It is our member’s view that they would much prefer to play on a good quality natural turf pitch than any other surface particularly when many of our concerns over health issues have not been satisfied.” 

FIFPro asked Doctor Vincent Gouttebarge, PHD who has a Master’s degree in Human Movement Sciences and a PhD degree in Medicine, with special expertise in the field of (top) sport and health to give his opinion on the recent studies. 

Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge, PhD: “The debate in professional football about artificial turf versus natural grass has been ongoing for more than a decade. The fervent proponents of natural grass seem to rely on sentimental reasons dealing with the essence of football, and on the claim that artificial turf leads to a higher risk on injuries. For that claim, scientific evidence is less clear-cut on the advantages of natural grass in professional football, especially when it comes to the latest generation of artificial turf. 

“Past studies have emphasised that the overall rate of injury was higher on first and second generation artificial turf than on natural grass. However, recent studies have shown that the rate of injury on the new (third and fourth) generations of artificial turf has been comparable with natural grass. 

“Bjorneboe and colleagues (2010) found no significant differences in injury rate between third generation artificial turf and natural grass in Norwegian male professional football. 

Dr Gouttebarge added: “In a study of Ekstrand and colleagues (2011) involving 20 teams (15 male, 5 female) from several European countries playing home matches on third generation artificial turf, the injury rate was found to be not significantly different between artificial turf and natural grass. 

“The same finding was found in youth male and female footballers (Soligard 2012). Nevertheless, Williams and colleagues stated in 2011 that there was an exception: an increased risk of ankle injury was likely on third and fourth generation artificial turf. 

"Players reported a negative overall impression, inferior ball control, and greater physical effort on artificial turf than natural grass."Dr Vincent Gouttebarge, PHD

Dr Gouttebarge continued: “When it comes to the influence of artificial turf on the football game itself, some differences between artificial turf and natural grass have been found. 

“In a study among Swedish elite football players during competitive games on artificial turf and natural grass, Andersson and colleagues (2007) found that there were more short and midfield-to-midfield passes on artificial turf. In addition, players reported a negative overall impression, inferior ball control, and greater physical effort on artificial turf than natural grass. 

“On hot sunny days, artificial turf heats up much more than natural grass: measurements on a summer day in the Netherlands showed that artificial turf would heat up to 50 °C at ankle level. Such high surface temperatures can lead to heat stress-related health problems, and have a negative impact on the quality of the football game. 

Dr Gouttebarge said: “The perception of professional football players about artificial turf has been unequivocal. In several European studies performed by players unions, it was shown that 70 to 90 % of the players have a negative attitude towards artificial turf. In Germany, Norway and Slovenia, 50 to 80 % of professional footballers reported being at higher risk of injury on artificial turf as compared to natural grass. 

“With regard to the character of the game, 50 to 90 % of players in Germany, the Netherlands and Slovenia were of the opinion that artificial turf reduced the quality of the game. Among professional players from the Swedish premier league, 75 % had a negative attitude towards playing competitive games on artificial turf (Johansson 2007). 

“With regard to the aforementioned, it seems that artificial turf has influenced the football game itself negatively. 

“In addition, all professional players have a negative attitude towards and perception about performing their job on artificial turf. While artificial turf might be an optimum solution to difficult weather conditions for many amateur clubs, the conclusion is that professional football at the present time should exclusively be played on natural grass. 

“Consequently, the logical expectation is that bodies responsible for professional competitions and tournaments would take into account the players' opinions. The latest news about the Women’s World Cup final 2015 being played on artificial turf, however, definitely shows that this is not the case.”

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