OTTAWA, Ontario (AP) — The fields are heating up, there are little black rubber pellets everywhere, and feet are covered with blisters.
The artificial turf at the Women’s World Cup is taking a toll.
Australian forward Michelle Heyman told reporters that when the temperature rises, the fields are like walking on “hot coals.”
The use of artificial turf for this year’s tournament in Canada has been a contentious issue since it was included in the nation’s bid in 2011.
The ball bounces and rolls differently on a plastic pitch, causing turf burns on players and making recovery times longer. The men’s World Cup has always been played on grass.
Speedy U.S. forward Alex Morgan acknowledges she’s got blisters on her toes.
“I feel like turf in general is harder to recover from, just that achiness lasts a little bit longer, but we’ve been training on turf leading up to the World Cup … so with that in mind, I think we’re more used to it than someone who just jumped into a tournament going from grass,” Morgan said.
In China’s round-of-16 match against Cameroon in Edmonton, Lou Jiahui pulled up the hem of her shorts after an attempted slide tackle to reveal bloody scrapes.
And then there’s heat: Artificial turf absorbs it like an oven roast, and those pellets hold it.
One media outlet recorded the turf temperature at 120 degrees for the Edmonton opener between China and host Canada.
That makes hydration more essential. The heat was such a concern at the knockout-stage match between England and Norway in Ottawa that Swiss referee Esther Staubli called for a water break at the 25-minute mark.
Heyman this week decried the impact on her feet: “It’s like walking on hot coals with your skin ripping and slowly cracking, constantly.”
But Australia coach Alen Stajcic said Thursday there was no point complaining.
“I think the black rubber usually reflects the heat, and it comes up through the players’ boots. But that’s the same for both teams. It’s just not going to affect an Australian players’ foot; it’ll affect anyone,” he said.
Last fall U.S. forward Abby Wambach led players in litigation over the use of artificial turf at this year’s World Cup, a group that included Morgan, Germany’s Nadine Angerer and Spain’s Veronica Boquete. They claimed the use of fake grass amounted to gender discrimination.
FIFA wouldn’t bend on the issue, saying that Canada’s bid — the only one in the end for the event — stipulated the tournament be played on artificial surfaces.
The players eventually dropped the claim. To address some of the issues, the turf is heavily watered. That keeps the surface cool and tamps down those little black pellets, which serve as a shock absorber and filler. Players say artificial turf grabs less when it’s watered.
“From my perception, the game is different on turf, but it’s the same for everybody,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “And that’s kind of been the mantra for our team. I would love the surfaces to be more wet; I think the surfaces are very dry. It’s turf; it is what it is. But I still think we can make the surfaces play faster by putting water on them.”
Earlier in the tournament, Wambach said she’s definitely aware that she’s on a harder surface. She suggested more goals would be scored at the World Cup if it weren’t for the turf.
Against Sweden, Wambach’s header toward the goal took an unsual high bounce, and goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl popped it up and over the crossbar.
“The ball as it comes off my head against Sweden hits a dry turf and bounces higher,” Wambach said. “If it hits grass, it’s harder for a goalkeeper to react. If the ball bounces higher, the goalkeeper has more time to react off the turf.”
Wambach clarified that she wasn’t making excuses, and that all the players in Canada are facing the same challenges.
It was a sentiment echoed by her teammates.
“You have to find a way,” U.S. defender Ali Krieger said. “You have to adapt. This is what was given to us and we’re going to do the best we can with it, and adapt and find a way to be successful, no matter what surface we’re playing on.”
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