FIFA Women’s World Cup down under

Firsts dominated the Women’s World Cup in Australia in New Zealand. It was the first final for England and Spain, and the first title for the latter after edging out the Lionesses in a tightly contested match.

For the first time, the tournament was played in the southern hemisphere, all six confederations won matches, and there was the most extensive female involvement in pitch preparation.

The show-piece final at Stadium Australia was more than two years in the making by FIFA, the host countries and Senior Pitch Management Manager, Alan Ferguson. Despite the thorough planning on and off the pitch, Alan and others may have been surprised by just how much the tournament has caught the imagination, breaking several records from France 2019.

Evidence of that was an audience of 53.9 million viewers in China for their game against England, over 1,715,000 tickets sold and recording-breaking attendances in Australia and New Zealand for host nation matches.

At the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, nine women prepared the pitch for Australia’s crucial win against Canada. In 2021, only 1.4% of the Australian turf management industry was made up of women. FIFA, the Australian Sports Turf Managers Association (ASTMA) and host cities in Australia and Aotearoa, New Zealand, strived to change that.

Sports Turf Manager, Eden Zanker, was one of the nine women working on the night and told she believes the programme has inspired women to excel.

Senior Pitch Management Manager, Alan Ferguson

“We see all the banners around the stadium saying, ‘Football Unites the World’, and that’s not just on the field, but off the field too. The Women in Turf Initiative is bringing a lot of women together and showing that women can do anything we want to,” said Eden.

“It’s such an awesome programme for women to be involved in because it gives them opportunities such as tonight where we get to work at such an empowering and amazing event. We outnumbered the boys tonight, girl power all the way!”

FIFA’s Women in Turf Legacy is the first step in providing more opportunities for women in the industry and is a programme Alan is keen to support.

“The sports turf industry is a great industry to get into and for too long was seen as a male dominated industry. It’s only right that it now acts as an equal opportunities industry,” he said.

“The women’s game is growing fast, and we are delighted to be playing our part in that. But as that progress happens, it’s important we ensure every area around the game, including turf, is actively creating opportunities in the same way.”

Pre-Tournament Pitch Preparation

While it may feel like a different time, Alan’s preparations for this tournament began with a 14-day hotel quarantine in February 2021. After two weeks, the team got to inspect the four host cities of Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton and Dunedin in New Zealand before flying to Australia to visit Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Around the time of the inspection, FIFA announced that the tournament would be expanded to 32 teams allowing greater participation and adding to the main challenge of hosting a World Cup in the winter.

All ten proposed stadiums hosting the 64-game programme and the supporting training sites were visited, with the final selection coming soon after. Beyond the ten stadiums, there were 32 team base camps. The 32 participating teams were split between the two host countries for the group stages, with 16 teams in each country. In addition to the team base camps, each host city had two venue-specific training sites (VSTSs). These sites are where the teams train on Matchday minus 1 (MD-1), having travelled from their base camp to play a group game and host their press and media obligations ahead of each game.

The team also had back-up pitches as the tournament was being staged in the southern hemisphere winter, with rain a real threat to the match schedule. In total, the team had 74 pitches to manage across both countries.

140 Member associations played for the 32 final spots over two years, and in February 2023, the final three places were filled following a playoff tournament held in New Zealand.

With the play-off behind them, there were several lessons learned from the host nation, including the need to manage against bad weather. Twelve months previously, a workshop in Sydney was impacted by flooding and the same was experienced again in Auckland during the play-off tournament in February.

Getting the pitches ready for this challenge meant getting preparations right, and the focus was on renovations and stitching.

“Renovations are always crucial to the overall pitch success,” Alan explained. “Usually, these tournaments are hosted in the summer, and we have favourable conditions, but in the southern hemisphere, we’re playing in winter.”

“Getting good sward development and density established was essential because the pitches would have to deal with the intensity of a World Cup in winter, when growth and recovery are slower and weather difficult in some regions.”

“We – FIFA – also insisted that all stadium pitches in the tournament were hybrid. The hybrid policy of stitching has been successful since 2018 for the Men’s World Cup in Russia. The intensity of tournament play has increased, with team squads now up to 23 players in most tournaments.”

“As we have also increased team participation by creating more matches per tournament, group games are coming every 48 hours in the senior World Cups, with double headers a feature in the youth tournaments.”

“Without stitching, pitches would break up after three to four games, so it helps maintain the stability and appearance of the surface.”

Playing games in winter also causes scheduling issues with other sports. Just eight days before the Matilda’s opened their tournament – FIFA usually requires the stadium four weeks before a tournament – against the Republic of Ireland at Stadium Australia, the last State of Origin rugby league match was being played between New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons.

In this case, stitching was crucial to ensure top quality all the way to the final. The ten pitches used in the competition were either stitched with Desso Grass master (now Grassmax) SISGRASS or Hero Turf.

In Tournament Management

The tournament finally kicked off in Eden Park, New Zealand, on July 20th, with two years of work coming together. Match 1 was closely followed by M2, which saw Australia vs Republic of Ireland in Stadium Australia in Sydney, and for Alan, it’s always a proud moment.

“The opening game of any tournament is a proud moment because the planning and work have been done, and we’re ready to go,” Alan said. “Obviously, it’s a fleeting moment because, from there, the hard work really begins with the training sites and match schedule, so it’s when the pitch venue managers play their part.”

“It’s always the toughest part of the tournament because the match and training intensity is at its greatest. The peak time for pitch use comes in five days ahead of the tournament when all the teams are required to be in the country, and it’s the first two group games.”

“After this, things ease off a bit as teams tend to tick over, reducing the intensity of the training sessions. Further relief for the training pitches also comes from the travelling the teams have to do from the base camps to the host city stadiums to play games. It’s often the first chance the pitch teams have to catch up on some much-needed in-tournament maintenance since the kick-off.”

“The pitches are regularly tested for surface hardness, traction and moisture. These three key playing characteristics are monitored daily in the stadiums and once every two to three days on the training sites. Reports are filled out for each pitch and sent to me, and any issues can then be raised with the project team and senior management.”

Setting standards

“Happily, the vast majority of the pitches were well prepared, with only a small handful requiring some late work to meet the standard required for the tournament. The team base camp pitches and VSTSs used for pre-match training are all maintained to a very high standard.”

“Sometimes, it’s not always possible to keep the high standard we start off with going for the whole tournament. Part of the challenge comes from the diversity of sites which can range from local club pitches to professional stadiums; and in New Zealand, frost, snow and heavy rain presented challenges throughout the group phase.”

“That’s why the decision was made to use bespoke rain covers from Sports and Stadia. They were used to protect the pitches in the four high-risk cities of Perth, Sydney, Auckland and Wellington.”

For Alan, this tournament has set the standards on and off the pitch for the yet-to-be-announced tournament in 2027. As ever, he and the FIFA pitch team will strive to raise the bar, but they’ve set themselves a hard act to follow.

Article by Blair Ferguson

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