On Sunday, players from the U.S. and Japan’s women’s soccer teams will step onto the field in Vancouver to compete for the sport’s greatest achievement: the World Cup. But perhaps the bigger battle—one that started well before the final match and will continue well after—isn’t about a trophy or national glory. Women’s soccer teams have long fought for recognition and respect not just from the public, but also from the male organizers of the sport, and it’s a struggle symbolized by the very fields they’ve been playing on.
The co-hosts of the World Cup—FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association—failed to stage this year’s tournament to be played on real grass like every other World Cup previously, mandating that it be played on artificial turf instead. This is despite the dangers and inconveniences plastic turf poses. The synthetic pitches bake in the sun, with surface temperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees. Clouds of rubber pebbles fly into players’ eyes, and the turf makes it difficult for the women to gauge the way the ball will bounce.
Working with attorneys in Canada and the U.S., I represented a group of 80 international players who in the fall of 2014 sued FIFA and CSA for gender discrimination in an effort to get the World Cup games on natural grass. Our fight was known as the “turf war,” and it wasn’t an easy one. In the months that followed, FIFA and CSA variously threatened protesting players with suspension, delayed a court decision despite the players’ need to know what surface the tournament would be held on so they could train accordingly, and suggested they would either defy an adverse legal ruling or cancel the tournament altogether. They also repeatedly rejected the players’ settlement offers—for example, to play just the semi-final and championship games on temporary grass surfaces with all installation costs covered by private companies. As the World Cup’s June 2015 kick-off drew nearer, it became clear to the players and to me that leaders within FIFA and CSA had a peculiar conception what constitutes a fair legal fight. And so we withdrew our lawsuit to allow the players and their coaches to focus exclusively on preparing for the unique conditions and challenges posed by artificial turf.