Artificial football pitches have come a long way since they first started creeping into the English game over a generation ago. In the early 80’s teams like QPR, Luton Town and Oldham Athletic all recorder memorable FA Cup victories on artificial pitches, with their far more illustrious opponents struggled to come to terms with the “plastic pitches” the ties were played on. The pitches in questions we’re hard, unforgiving surfaces which memorably pitched balls high into the air, causing havoc for the back four when dealing with the long ball. The pitches were eventually, and rightfully, banned by the FA in 1988 with players and manager likening the pitches to “concrete surfaces painted green”.
But modern artificial pitch development is now seen as a fine art and with FIFA’s introduction of a new rating system, the artificial pitches have made a renaissance over the past four years. The 3G pitches – as they are commonly know – are made up of a expanded polypropylene base with tall, wide, silicone covered fibres (acting as the ‘grass’) and stabilised by thinner curly fibres that keep the ‘grass’ upright. The surface then has an in-fill of either silicone sand or, more frequently, rubber granulates that give the players a realistic feeling of playing on a well managed grass pitch.
Despite these developments there are still voices of discontent inside and outside the game who argue that professional football should only be played on grass pitches. Part of these arguments no doubt stem from a draconian view of artificial surfaces based on the condition of the plastic pitches we all saw during the 80’s. The suggestion that most people agree on is that when the financial and environmental conditions aren’t in place for a club or country to provide a grass pitch, then they should look at artificial alternatives.
There is one continent in particular that will benefit greatly from the introduction of artificial pitches at all levels of the game; Africa. Most African countries are simply not supported by the two conditions to maintain decent natural playing surfaces – finance and environment.
FIFA have taken a lead roll in addressing the financial condition that deny countries the opportunity of installing such pitches. The Win in Africa With Africa project has budgeted $70 million for, among other thing, the installation of 52-high quality artificial pitches (one for each CAF member; with the exception of South Africa who can bankroll their own through income generated by the 2010 World Cup). The project also aims to support the organisation of both the Under 17 World Cup in Nigeria and the currently ongoing Under 20 World Cup in Egypt, most notably by providing the finance for the artificial pitches.
So with Africa all set to see the installation of some brand-spanking new football pitches, what are the advantages and disadvantages of these 3G pitches? Will they end up helping or hindering the development of young African player?
Lets first start off by looking at the arguments against developing youngsters on 3G pitches. The first, and main argument, is that you will be developing players on pitches that are, without question, completely different to the surfaces they would face as professional players in Europe, Asia or South America. During the dry season the ball would hold-up – unnaturally – on the pitch and therefore slow down the game and makes it difficult to develop a quick, one-touch passing game. The opposite is the case when it rains, with the rubber granulates now covered in water the surface becomes terribly quick and would test the first touch of some Europe’s best. The pitch condition can also be temperamental if they are not maintained properly; too many rubber granulates and the game would slow down even more, but once it starts raining on a pitch clad like a Dutch prostitute the ball would suffer the opposite effect, pitching high and travelling speedily along the surface.
Injuries is also a concern, particularly abrasion injuries that are common on poorly managed artificial surface; due to the nature of the materials used. The final disadvantage of these pitches, and it relates particularly to Africa, is that they heat up in sunny conditions resulting in a less than comfortable playing environment.
So what about the advantages. To counter the first argument against 3G pitches; players developing on a array of different surfaces – from dirt playing fields, to pot holed roads (when growing up) and later artificial surfaces (once they join an academy set-up) – could potentially become more versatile than their European counterparts who, we have seen in the past, struggle on any surface that isn’t as perfect as an antique Victorian rug.
The kids who will have the opportunity to play regularly on a 3G surface, maybe as part of a football summer school or higher level football academy will also be pushed technically by the surface. 3G pitches, as we’ve touched on already will change, much like a grass pitch, during the different seasons. Where the 3G pitch is different is that these changes are more extreme.
Unless the pitches are stringently and perfectly maintained during the dry season they will get bobbly, which will test the players first touch. If they received the right coaching then the players who later move onto European clubs would find taking a first touch on ‘Victorian rug pitches’ very easy. Passes have to be hit with more power because the ball holds-up on the surface, therefore both short and long passes have to be accurate at pace, another difficult skill to master. The pace of games will be slower teaching players the importance of possession and patience on the ball, enabling them to dictate the tempo of a game and tiring out their opponents who have to continually press and cover the team in possession. Effective attacking principle can be applied by the coaches so that teams learn to play over opposition defence so that quick strikers can run onto a ball that will hold-up on the slower surface.
But when the pitch is watered or used during the rainy season the ball will travel faster along the glossy surface, speeding up the game and enable players to work on quick, one-touch passing. The attacking principle must also change, an emphasis on playing through or around teams must be adopted on the quicker surface.
The changing conditions will not only raise the level of developing and established players but also of the local coaches. For academy’s and teams to be successful their coaches must be able to firstly understand the changing conditions and how it effects their team, then work out how to adapt to it, then apply a strategy for their players on the training pitch before finally guiding them through the strategy during a match.
In general, during all seasons the 3G pitches demand a higher calibre of coach and player to produce a higher quality of many attributes that make up successful modern day footballers; intelligent first touch, a range of passing, understanding of possessional play, tactical awareness etc.
To counter the point about abrasion injuries, if the 3G surfaces are maintained properly then it would not be too far off to suggest they are a far safer pitch than you see many African football players playing on both at recreational level and in the national leagues. The other issue regarding overheating is a real negative factor and one that is impossible to counter unless you build these pitches within sports centres.
I’ve touch on national leagues already and they themselves would certainly benefit from the installation of 3G pitches. From an organisational point of view the pitches can withstand any weather condition, allowing fixtures to pass off on a regular basis and ensuring a regular stream of income for local clubs. You may argue that a lot of these leagues are unpopular with local people who prefer to tune-in to English Premiership and Spanish La Liga games rather than make the trip to watch Thika United vs. KCB. This is true but the reason for them tuning-in to these foreign leagues is that their own national league produces a standard of football that is far below what the European ‘product’ has to offer. If players were able to play on better surfaces that allowed them to improve as individuals, and more importantly collectively, then the standard of football in the national leagues would undoubtedly rise.
FIFA always insisted on wanting to leave a legacy in Africa after the 2010 World Cup. The idea of installing artificial pitches for each CAF member is a fantastic strategy. I really do hope that national federations – upon seeing the advantages of having 3G pitches – will make allowances to support the continued investment in such artificial surfaces and make them available for all to enjoy. If they do, African football will benefit for years to come.