Astroturf is not at a testing phase anymore. After decades of experimentation and technological development, today it is clear that synthetic grass has succeeded and will remain in History as one of the main achievements to democratise football.
A simple walk around any city in Spain is enough to realise what astroturf means for football nowadays. Where dusty pitches used to be, now a shining green resists any kind of weather. Thanks to new generation technologies and materials, the revolution of the plastic fibres allows today many football teams to enjoy excellent pitches at a reasonable price.
“To set up these kind of pitches is considerably cheaper than 20 or 30 years ago“, explains Gabriel Rodríguez, the Facilities Manager of Marcet: “During de eighties it was a huge investment. Now it’s still a big expense, but nothing compared with then. And it’s a great investment”.
Reasons are simple. “Natural grass can be used, at most, a couple of hours per day. Even less. Use it more than that amount of time means to destroy it gradually until it becomes a potato patch”, says Rodríguez: “Our facilities are used between 8 and 10 hours per day, which means that natural grass is not an option”.
Little by little, astroturf has replaced almost all dirt pitches, while natural grass has become an option only feasible for premier leagues stadiums. A luxury for clubs that can leave their facilities without use for 90% of the time. An option less and less chosen by teams. Especially considering that astroturf is becoming more a more alike natural grass.
Synthetic pitches are almost a must in cold climate or rainy countries. Not only Russia, Sweden or Norway, where professional clubs already use it in their stadiums. Also in Scotland, where more and more voices advocate for this kind of grass. “You don’t get perfect grass all the time in Scotland so it seems like a good thing, artificial pitches”, recently said Ronny Deila. During his time as Celtic’s coach, the Norwegian proved himself in favour of setting up synthetic grass in the Scottish Premier League. “If you are going to develop talent, it’s so important that you have good surfaces – that way you can lift your eyes up and look for a pass, instead of worrying about the ball bouncing away from your feet”, said at an interview with ‘The Telegraph‘.
Deila’s words were scandalous for a part of the scottish football, but he did say that after a particularly harsh winter, which forced the league to postpone many Premier League matches because of the bad conditions of the natural grass. Not even Hampden Park, the Natioal Team’s Stadium, was capable of resisting the severe weather. It’s natural grass has been renewed four times in only seven years.
In England, most of Premier League already have hybrid grass, where plastic fibres stick on natural grass. But, in other latitudes, Premier and Second division teams have already chosen a 100% synthetic option, with the UEFA approval. It’s the case of Novara Calcio in Italy, BSC Young Boys and Neuchâtel XFC in Switzerland, Red Bull of Salzburgo or the Boavista FC in Portugal, although the Portuguese team was forced to change back to natural grass during the season 2015-16, after other clubs – led by the FC Porto – refused to play on artificial grass; a token of the ongoing debate regarding this kind of surface.
“We haven’t yet achieved for the sensation to be the exactly the same, but we have come a long way”, says Ángel González, Naturf engineer, one of the leading companies on astroturf: “When you design artificial grass it’s key to take into account the sensations of the player, such as the impact absorption, the energy restitution, the rolling and bouncing of the ball, the rotation resistance… Today we can achieve very similar parameters to those of a natural grass pitch“.
“Nowadays we have almost matched the natural grass regarding density, pressure and thickness”, confirms Carlos Mendoza. According to the Physical Preparation professor at the Marcet Football University, the risk of an injury in an astroturf pitch has been significantly reduced lately: “Before there were many cruciate ligament distention, since there was no movement for the feet when stopping, therefore articulations suffered absorbing everything that the terrain wasn’t able to absorb. But now is just a matter of a proper warm-up to prevent this kind of problem”.
Also, sport equipment companies have started to design boots capable of preventing these kinds of injures. “There are several kinds of studs, of different density“, explains Mendoza: “You’ll never use the eight studs boot that you’ll use in natural grass during a rainy day, with mud. Boots for astroturf always have more studs, since these are designed for a more homogenous kind of surface”.
One of the main advantages of the synthetic terrain is, precisely, its consistency. In natural grass, the step is random, since the surface moves more and tends to get dented in some areas, while a good astroturf will always be homogenous. A key characteristic in order to avoid injuries.
This doesn’t mean that synthetic grass doesn’t need any kind of maintenance. “You’ll always need to do some specific conservation works“, says González. The Naturf’s engineer explains that it’s advisable to wet a bit the pitch before the arrival of the players: “Water reduces temperature, acts as a lubricant that reduces abrasiveness, minimizes the fibrillation and also helps to clean the grass. This is not necessary during winter in humid areas, but during summer and in dry areas is unavoidable”.
Maintenance of the astroturf goes beyond physical risks. “It is very important to do an inspection every week and brush the pitch so the fibre stands”, explains Rodríguez. “Also, once every three months you have to do a more intense maintenance. At Marcet we hire a company that spreads rubber all over the pitch and to make sure that the white lines are firmly attached and the fibres are not broken”.
The key maintenance works are a must to ensure good conditions of the grass during the years. A well-maintained pitch can last between eight and ten years in perfect conditions, depending on the climate and the quality of the filaments. The measurement unit for these filaments is the decitex (dtex), which expresses the density or the lineal mass of a fibre. Most of the current artificial grass pitches have between 12.000 or 16.000 decitex. The more decitex, better the fibre and the resistance.
Besides filaments, there are other elements to consider to check the quality of astroturf. Fibre is only the most superficial layer and hides what lies beneath: small rubber pieces and silica. “These layers are the ones that soften and should stay at a determined level so the impact absorption and restitution properties remain constant, explains González.
“To assess synthetic grass, you should use the Lisport Test, which measures the wear originated by stud-alike cylinders that imitate the step of a footballer. FIFA requires the grass to hold at least 20.200 cycles, which equals around a 5 years’ life for the astroturf. The one at Marcet reaches 100.000 cycles” says the engineer.
Quality determines the price, which is between 26€ and 50€ per square metre, according to Rodríguez: “To that, you must add the maintenance costs, which are higher if you outsource it. It might cost you an extra 4.000€ or 5.000€ every three months”. It’s a considerable amount, but a guaranteed amortization. And a must for those pitches that will be used more than two hours per day, which is the majority”.