Photo via Toronto Star
By: Kevin McGran Sports Reporter, Published on Tue Aug 05 2014
Believing men would never be asked to play a World Cup game on artificial turf, many of the world’s greatest female soccer players are wondering why Canada is asking them to.
Now the likes of Germany’s Nadine Angerer, the 2013 FIFA player of the year, and American Abby Wambach, the 2012 player of the year, are heading towards a human rights showdown with the Canadian Soccer Association over plans to run next summer’s women’s World Cup on an artificial surface instead of natural grass.
An international team of lawyers sent a letter on behalf of 40 women athletes, including Angerer and Wambach, to the Canadian Soccer Association and the Federation Internationale de Football Association urging the tournament be played on natural grass instead of an artificial field so as to avoid gender discrimination lawsuits and/or challenges under Canadian human rights codes and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The CSA referred all media queries on the matter to FIFA. FIFA did not respond to a request for an interview. There are no Canadians on the list, by design, say the lawyers, because they don’t want to put the Canadian players in an uncomfortable position.
“We need to make clear that it is not only the wrong thing to do to put a first-class tournament on a second-class surface, but it’s also illegal,” said litigator Hampton Dellinger of the U.S. law firm Boies, Schiller and Flexner. “To treat the women who participate in a World Cup differently than the men have been and will be treated is not right is prohibited under Canadian law.”
The Canadian Soccer Association did not respond to a voicemail.
“The players and our firm did not ask current Canadian team members to join, given that their governing body (the Canadian Soccer Association) is our focus and will be a defendant if the lawsuit goes forward,” lawyer Josh Hafenbrack of Boies Schiller said in an email. “We did not want to put them in an uncomfortable situation.”
No legal action has been launched. The authors of the letter hope the CSA and FIFA change gears and agree to install natural grass.
“Every option is on the table in terms of legal action,” said Dellinger. “We’re very mindful the World Cup is going to happen no matter what and the players are going to participate no matter what.
“We’re not going to delay but we are giving Canadian soccer a chance to do the right thing.”
Canada is hosting the Women’s World Cup next summer in stadiums in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton in stadiums that all use artificial turf.
No World Cup — either men’s or women’s — has ever been played on turf, a surface athletes in many sports complain about, both for injuries and for the purity of the game.
“Playing on grass, you can caress the ball better,” said Canadian soccer hall of famer Carrie Serwetnyk. “The touch is magnificent. It’s what a player dreams of, to walk into a stadium, to have the perfect paying surface.
“To host the largest sporting event in history for women and not giving them an equal playing field as they would for men, not to give them the best surface possible, it’s insulting to the top women’s players in the world.
“We can do better. The soccer bodies are getting millions of dollars from our government to upgrade the stadiums for the women’s world cup. And who plays in these stadiums? Men. The least they can do is put down grass for the Women’s World Cup.”
Canada is expected to bid on 2026 men’s World Cup, using the women’s World Cup as a springboard. Serwetnyk believes FIFA and the CSA would never ask the men to play on an artificial surface.
“You know in a heartbeat they’re putting grass down,” said Serwetnyk. “There’s no way you can even get the men’s World Cup otherwise.
“The Messis, the Ronaldos, they’d just laugh. It wouldn’t happen.
“Women don’t have that star power. They don’t have the millions of dollars behind their name to create a ripple, to say this is unfair. They don’t have that power. The only way to push this agenda, to bring attention to it, is through legal action.”
University of Toronto law professor Denise Reaume, who is not involved, say the women might have a better chance with a human rights complaint than with a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which deals with legislation and how government treats its citizens. Reaume pointed out that not only all previous World Cups have been played on natural grass but the next two men’s World Cups will be played on grass.
“That’s the first leg of an argument in a human rights complaint — that women are being treated differently than the men. There’s a reason to believe this is discriminatory,” said Reaume.
“That puts the onus on FIFA to say why they’re doing it this way. Their first argument is going to be we’re not doing anything (bad) to the women. The second part is going to have to be about the feasibility of providing natural surfaces.”
Serwetnyk is happy the international players are pressing for change and hoped the CSA would do the “right thing” for Canada.
“We have a responsibility as a country to push forward for equality,” she said. “It’s really taking a step backward in saying women are second-class citizens in sports here.
“I know it’s an international pursuit, but I’m thankful . . . someone is stepping up. Hopefully it challenges the officials in charge and hopefully it wakes up Canadians.”