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FIFPro requested doctor Vincent Gouttebarge - 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 write an article about recent studies comparing football played on natural grass versus football played on artificial grass. Gouttebarge is also a former professional football player. Below is his article and his personal view.

 

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.

Injury rate
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. 

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. 

Influences on football game
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. 

Players’ perception
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). 

Final remark
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.' 

 

 

Former professional football player Dr. Vincent Gouttebarge is senior researcher at the Coronel Institute of Occupational Health from the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam (the Netherlands), and is co-owner of Vintta, a research and consultancy unit for sports health.