Messi Skips Atlanta Though Soccer’s Turf Debate Goes On

Lionel Messi’s didn’t travel with Inter Miami FC and will miss the club’s MLS game at Atlanta United this Saturday at Mercedes Benz Stadium, the team confirmed in a text message. The 71,000-seat stadium, set to be filled with the freshly disappointed, is one of the six MLS stadiums that use artificial turf instead of grass. Three are shared with NFL teams.

Messi’s appearance on artificial turf gained renewed attention after NFL star Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles tendon at MetLife Stadium last Monday. While there is no evidence Rodgers’ injury was related to artificial turf, the incident brought back the debate in the NFL about whether the surfaces belong in the sport, a conversation that spilled over into soccer.

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The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner previously said he didn’t mind. “It’s been a while since I’ve played on artificial turf, but I have no problem adapting myself again,” Messi said during his first press conference in Miami last month. Workload has been a concern since Messi arrived at Inter Miami, which will play next on Wednesday at home against Toronto FC. Messi also didn’t play in Argentina’s 3-0 win against Bolivia this past Wednesday; the national team has two World Cup qualifier matches in October.

Messi does not make a big deal about turf, but other European superstars who’ve come to MLS have. Inter Miami’s co-owner David Beckham was adamant about not wanting to play on artificial turf during his time with LA Galaxy. Another superstar, Thierry Henry, expressed his concerns and did not travel to Seattle for a regular season game because the stadium had artificial turf. 

This past summer, playing surfaces at NFL stadiums were switched from turf to grass for the summer soccer friendlies, including the match between Premier League’s Manchester United and Arsenal at MetLife Stadium—where Rodgers got hurt. In July, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hosted a soccer match between Chelsea and Wrexham AFC. To do so, organizers trucked in a hundred thousand square feet of grass to cover the artificial turf on its football field.

Installing natural grass at venues can cost around $600,000 to $900,000, according to sources. Mercedes Benz Stadium replaced its turf in 2019 and earned the highest certification possible by FIFA, known as FIFA Pro, according to the team’s spokesperson. Gillette Stadium (New England Revolution), Providence Park (Portland Timbers), Lumen Field (Sounders FC), Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte FC) and BC Place (Vancouver Whitecaps) are the other artificial playing surfaces in MLS.

Artificial turf also became a sticking point in 2015 for the Women’s World Cup in Canada. More than 40 international players, including the USWNT, brought a lawsuit against the Canadian Soccer Association and FIFA over the tournament being played on synthetic turf instead of natural grass. After Canada, FIFA has banned artificial surfaces in all World Cups.

Artificial turf has been banned in English soccer since 1995, two years after the English Premier League was launched. Most of Europe’s top-tier soccer leagues play their matches on grass. UEFA allows Champions League games to take place on Fourth Generation (4G) surfaces consisting of synthetic turf.

Artificial Turf in Soccer Timeline

1966: AstroTurf makes its debut in the Houston Astrodome, the world’s first enclosed dome stadium.

1970s: Early versions of artificial turf started seeing limited use in soccer.

1981: FIFA gives provisional acceptance for the use of artificial turf.

Mid-1990s: Third-generation turf was introduced, featuring longer blades of grass filled with sand and rubber, making it appear closer to natural grass.

2001: FIFA introduced the FIFA Quality Programme for Football Turf to set a global industry standard.

2004: FIFA allowed international competitions, including the World Cup qualifiers, to be played on approved artificial pitches.

2015: The Women’s World Cup in Canada was played entirely on artificial turf. Some of the world’s top female players petitioned, citing gender discrimination since the men’s World Cup had never been played on synthetic grass. The case was later dropped.

2021: UEFA’s Euro 2021 tournament was played on a combination of natural and hybrid turf, a mixture of natural grass supported by artificial fibers.

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