Women withdraw artificial turf complaint over 2015 World Cup in Canada

United States' Abby Wambach plays in an international friendly soccer match against Ireland in Glendale, Ariz, Dec.1, 2012.
United States' Abby Wambach plays in an international friendly soccer match against Ireland in Glendale, Ariz, Dec.1, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Paul Connors

TORONTO – The turf war is over, with a group of elite women’s players withdrawing its human rights complaint over artificial turf at this summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada.

The women did not exit quietly, however. Their lawyer slammed FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association, saying both governing bodies had behaved badly in the face of the challenge before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

READ MORE: Wambach takes World Cup turf protest to FIFA’s Valcke

Lawyer Hampton Dellinger accused the soccer authorities of threatening players with suspension, delaying legal tactics and rejecting the players’ “undeniably fair settlement offer.”

“In the face of such irresponsible actions by FIFA and CSA, the players have elected to end their legal fight,” Dellinger said in a statement Wednesday. “The players are doing what FIFA and CSA have proven incapable of – putting the sport of soccer first.”

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The women also said their challenge had made a difference.

Tatjana Haenni, FIFA’s head of women’s competitions, acknowledged last Friday in Philadelphia that some of the artificial surfaces at the tournament may have to replaced.

“We know that Vancouver is an issue,” Haenni said of B.C. Place Stadium, which will host the World Cup final among other games.

Haenni also said that the time for dissent was over, that the women should focus their attention on the field in the knowledge that a successful tournament would be good for women’s soccer around the globe.

FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said the sport’s governing body had worked hard with players and technical staff “to address their concerns and doubts.”

“What was very clear from the meetings with the players was their desire and enthusiasm about making this the greatest FIFA Women’s World Cup ever, and to ensure that they have the best possible conditions to perform well.” he said in a statement. “This is a goal they share with FIFA and we are totally committed to providing the best possible surface to enable everyone to enjoy a great footballing spectacle.

“We – the participating teams and the organizers – can now all focus on the preparation and promotion of the biggest event in women’s football this June in Canada.”

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The CSA did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

READ MORE: FIFA says some Women’s World Cup turf may need change

Dellinger, who like his fellow lawyers represented the women for free, pointed to other victories by the rebel faction.

“The players’ united, international effort to protest discrimination has had a positive impact,” he said. “The deplorable artificial surface at B.C. Place, the site of the final, will be replaced. Goal-line technology will be used for the first time in a Women’s World Cup and we know that the 2019 World Cup will be held on grass. Moreover, the players and their supporters have highlighted continuing gender inequity in sports and lessened the chance that such wrongdoing will occur in the future.

“FIFA and CSA, on the other hand, will fail to host a discrimination-free tournament. They have embarrassed themselves and provided further grounds for reformers to challenge their current leadership.”

The World Cup is scheduled to run June 6 to July 5 in Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver.

The women had argued that making them play on artificial turf was discriminatory when the men play their showcase tournament on grass.

Turf will not be an issue at the 2019 women’s tournament. France and South Korea, the two countries bidding to host, both plan to play on grass.

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“On behalf of the players, I want to thank all who aided our fight for natural grass fields at the 2015 World Cup including our volunteer lawyers from Canada and the United States,” said U.S. star forward Abby Wambach, whose name was front and centre on the human rights challenge.

“Our legal action has ended. But I am hopeful that the players’ willingness to contest the unequal playing fields – and the tremendous public support we received during the effort – marks the start of even greater activism to ensure fair treatment when it comes to women’s sports.”

Canadian players were not part of the human rights challenge. They were left out since the CSA doubles as the tournament’s national organizing committee.

The women may have failed in their legal battle, but it can be argued they won the battle for public opinion even if FIFA rules clearly permit the use of sanctioned artificial turf.

FIFA looked intransigent while the CSA offered little in response. And Valcke’s commitment for an “open dialogue” looked empty when he refused to talk to players over the phone or to go to Brazil to talk in person during a tournament that featured stars like Wambach and Brazil’s Marta.

He eventually met with a group of players before the recent Ballon d’Or announcement.

“In the end, despite the challenges created by the sexism, greed, and stubbornness endemic to FIFA and CSA, the players will make the 2015 Women’s World Cup a success,” Dellinger said with one final parting shot. “The on-field skill, courage, and determination the players will display will redeem the tournament from the ineptitude and ingratitude of its organizers. I hope fans around the world will join me in following and supporting these amazing athletes as they compete across Canada this June and July.”


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