From the outside, soccer might seem like a relatively straightforward game with little room for variation.
However, what many non-players don’t know about the game is that, like many other sports, soccer games can be greatly impacted by even the most subtle changes or inconsistencies.
Anything from the weather to the quality of the equipment used can have a major impact on several factors of soccer play, including game time and shot accuracy.
One of the most significant factors that have been known to affect soccer games is pitch material.
Soccer fields or pitches can either be natural (meaning they are made up of real, natural grass) or artificial (meaning made of artificial turf).
Artificial turf began to be introduced into soccer in 1966 when the Houston, Texas Astrodome was fitted with ‘ChemGrass,’ which we now know as turf or AstroTurf.
However, quite soon after its development and integration into the world of sports, artificial turf began to lose favor amongst soccer players.
Since then, there has been a lot of debate surrounding the advantages and disadvantages of artificial turf and natural grass, respectively, where soccer is concerned.
Nevertheless, the consensus definitely seems to be that soccer players prefer grass over turf.
Today, we’re going to be exploring the reason(s) why soccer players prefer grass to turf from a physiological and competitive standpoint.
We’ll also be touching on the environmental impact of turf as it compares to grass before highlighting some alternative perspectives on why turf might sometimes be favored over grass for specific reasons.
There’s a lot to cover on this subject, so let’s dive straight in!
Why Do Soccer Players Prefer Grass?
The reasons why soccer players, in particular, tend to prefer grass playing fields over turf can be split into 2 key areas: physiological reasons and reasons relating to actual play.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be approaching the physiological side from the perspectives of injury and health before moving onto the technical play aspects.
Risk of Injury
Possibly the number 1 reason why soccer players prefer grass over turf is that, overall, playing on turf comes with a higher incidence of injury.
First of all, let’s start with the obvious. Anyone who’s ever played on or felt artificial soccer turf will know that it’s significantly more abrasive than real grass.
On top of that, sand infill is regularly applied to artificial turf to help keep the material weighed down and prevent wrinkling. This adds another layer of abrasion to an already abrasive surface.
The bottom line of this comparison is that you’re significantly more likely to take some skin off when falling on turf than you are on grass.
Falling in the first place is also more likely on turf than grass because there’s no soft, penetrable layer of mud for cleats to sink into for added grip.
As a consequence of this, there is a much higher injury rate in soccer that is played on turf than in soccer games played on grass - and we’re not basing this on estimates, either.
Entire studies have been conducted on the variation of injuries across artificial turf and natural grass.
For example, in 2019, the University Hospitals Sports Medicine Institute carried out a study in collaboration with 26 high schools over a single athletic season where incidences of injuries on both artificial turf and grass were recorded.
Across a range of sports, it was confirmed that athletes have a 58% higher risk of injury on artificial turf than on grass.
Soccer was one of the sports in which the risk was particularly elevated, alongside rugby.
However, the risk of abrasion-related injuries wasn’t the only type of injury recorded in this study.
Artificial turf has been proven to lead to a whole host of other injuries, some of which can have serious lifelong implications.
One of the most common soccer-related injuries seen after playing on artificial turf are injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (more commonly referred to as the ACL).
Injury to this ligament, which is located in the knee and is one of the major ligaments in this area, usually happens when twisting, jumping, or landing.
The incidence of ACL injuries goes up by an alarming 45% when the game is played on artificial turf as opposed to real grass.
Even worse, an ACL injury isn’t like a twisted ankle or other minor injuries that can usually recover fully with rest and physiotherapy.
In most cases, injuries to the ACL result in some degree of permanent mobility loss, even with proper medical care.
As you can imagine, this kind of injury can be devastating and life-changing to serious soccer players, both on a professional and hobby level.
Artificial turf has the potential to cause harm to soccer players outside of physical injuries.
Something that a lot of people forget about artificial turf is that it has different heat-retention properties from real grass.
Because the materials used to make soccer turf are synthetic and often plastic-adjacent, they can absorb a lot of heat.
In very hot weather conditions, in particular, the temperature of the turf’s surface can skyrocket.
Of course, this can lead to skin burns during falls in extreme cases, but the even more concerning issue is how damaging this buildup of heat can be to players in terms of dehydration.
As we all know, heat rises, so when a soccer turf becomes extremely hot, the heat from the surface will actually rise up in waves.
This means that soccer players then have to contend with the heat beating down on them from the sun as well as an extra wave of heat from below.
When you factor the body heat generated by physical exertion into the equation… Well, suffice it to say, the conditions become far from ideal.
Dehydration may be common and, in mild cases, easy to rectify with plenty of fluids and rest. However, when dehydration becomes severe, it can have very unpleasant and even fatal consequences.
Nausea, disorientation, and loss of consciousness are all potential side effects of becoming dehydrated during soccer.
People who regularly become dehydrated for extended periods of time are at a greater risk of long-term conditions such as kidney stones or, even worse, a loss of kidney function.
This may put soccer players who frequently play on the artificial turf at a higher risk.
Another feature of artificial turf that carries serious health implications (and isn’t talked about as much as it should be) is its chemical content.
The green pigmentation used to mimic the color of grass can sometimes contain harmful chemicals such as lead and titanium.
Material from recycled rubber tires used in the construction of synthetic turf may also contain carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals.
In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that many artificial turf materials contain heavy metals and PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances).
PFAS are particularly dangerous chemicals because they don’t work their way out of the human body and, instead, build up inside the body with repeated exposure.
While it’s unclear how much harm exposure to these surfaces through playing soccer can cause (the Environmental Protection Agency did not comment on this), what is clear is that artificial turf isn’t something you want to have prolonged physical contact with if you can avoid it.
Of course, the same can be (and is) said of the pesticides and other chemical treatments used to maintain grass.
The difference, however, is that much more research has been conducted into the physical health impacts of pesticide exposure on the human body, whereas the extent of harm caused by contact with artificial turf has received far less medical and academic attention.
Impact on the Game
Although the most serious and concerning drawbacks to playing soccer on turf (and, therefore, the biggest advantage of grass fields) are the risks of injury and ill-health, there is also a tangible impact on the game that needs to be discussed.
The first and most immediately obvious problem with playing soccer on artificial turf as opposed to grass is that a soccer ball travels much faster across a turf surface.
In the absence of minor surface irregularities and blades of grass, which provide a level of resistance as the ball travels across the field, a soccer ball will travel faster (by a margin of about 28%) on turf.
While the prospect of a super-fast-paced soccer game may sound exciting, the reality is far less so.
The accelerated speed of the ball can wreak all kinds of havoc on a soccer game, from interfering with standard technique to completely throwing off accuracy.
The added speed of ball travel means that a shot or pass mistimed by just a fraction of a second on turf can end up missing its target by over 10 feet!
Moreover, because turf is typically much firmer than real grass, the soccer ball will not bounce in the same way as it would on a grass pitch.
This, again, can lead to misjudgments and decreases the control players have over the ball.
One could argue, of course, that if players were trained on artificial turf from the beginning of their soccer careers, these issues would be minimized because players would be used to the conditions.
During the controversy surrounding the 2015 women’s world cup (more on this later), some team managers (for example, England’s Mark Sampson) came forward to argue that their teams were used to playing on artificial turf and would therefore perform well on an artificial field at tournament level.
However, given the safety issues with turf that we’ve outlined above, this doesn’t seem like a satisfying solution and could cause more problems than it would solve.
This also would not remedy some of the other drawbacks to playing soccer on turf.
Anyone who’s watched or played a lot of soccer will know that sliding can be pretty fundamental to the game - and not just when celebrating goals!
A sliding tackle, for example, can be used to dispossess a player on the opposing team.
This move is usually played as a last resort because it’s not the most practical or effective, but it can be a real score-saver in a pinch.
Playing on turf makes it much more difficult to slide effectively because of the absence of mud and moisture.
This makes the sliding tackle trickier to execute - and obviously, because of turf’s abrasiveness, it comes with added risks of skin injury.
The sliding tackle is a pretty risky maneuver at the best of times (as in, on grass) because of the positioning of the limbs and the risk of one player falling over the other.
When you add the other safety concerns surrounding turf into the equation, it’s clear that playing soccer on turf poses a lot of unique challenges to the way the game is normally played.
Case Study (The Women’s World Cup, 2015)
The points we’ve made so far relating to the benefits of natural grass soccer fields over turf aren’t just based on conjecture.
There are actually several real-life case studies of soccer play that demonstrate the drawbacks to playing on turf.
While studies (which we’ve mentioned) have been carried out into the benefits and drawbacks of grass vs. turf, these studies tend to use evidence from controlled samples or reports from institutional partnerships to make their results more accurate.
This is, of course, a good thing because reliable studies need to control for certain variables to make their results as generalizable as possible.
However, what these studies often fail to demonstrate is how deeply impactful the use of turf over grass can be on the game that millions of people know and love.
One of the best ways of highlighting this is to remind ourselves that the issue of turf vs. grass impacts soccer beyond high school athletics and has found its way to the heart of professional soccer.
Probably the best example of this is the 2015 women’s world cup, hosted in Vancouver, Canada.
There was some incredible talent on the pitch that year, and anyone who tuned in to watch will likely remember Cari Lloyd’s spectacular long-range performance and resultant hat trick in the finals.
Spectators might even remember the tournament for being the first to be monitored using Hawk-Eye goal-line technology.
Sadly, there was another, less positive takeaway from the women’s world cup that particular year, which was that it was (inexplicably) the first and only soccer world cup tournament to be played on artificial turf instead of grass.
When the playing arrangements were announced, it’s fair to say that the majority of the players were less than thrilled.
Not only were some players downright insulted by what was largely seen as a downgrade to the quality of the playing field, but many players openly voiced concerns about the safety of the turf.
Nadine Angerer, Germany’s goalkeeper at the time (now coach of the Portland Thorns), described the conditions as ‘embarrassing’ and compared the consistency of the turf to concrete.
Other players continued to protest against the implementation of artificial turf until, eventually, an official lawsuit was filed accusing FIFA of sexual discrimination and citing safety concerns as one of the primary issues.
Sadly, the lawsuit proved unsuccessful, and the tournament went ahead on the artificial turf.
The Environmental Impact
This factor doesn’t affect the play of soccer, but it’s such an important point that we felt it would be remiss of us not to mention it here.
While many may use the argument that artificial soccer turf requires less water consumption and is, therefore, more environmentally friendly, this argument is fundamentally flawed.
Although there is truth to the point that turfs don’t need to be watered and therefore consume less water than natural grass, there are many more aspects of turf manufacture, installation, and maintenance that negatively impact the environment.
In 2017, FIFA actually commissioned a study into this exact subject.
The study found that multiple factors in artificial turf installation, maintenance, and disposal all have the potential to affect the environment negatively.
For one thing, as we brought up previously, the materials used to make artificial soccer turf are synthetic.
These materials are also not biodegradable. What this means is that, when it’s not disposed of in an environmentally-friendly way, artificial turf can contribute to waste pollution.
Now, if soccer associations were in the habit of responsibly recycling their turf when it’s worn out, this wouldn’t be so much of an issue.
However, as the authors of the study point out, this is not the case.
While most turfs in and of themselves could probably be effectively recycled, part of the issue lies in the shock pads and infill (sand) used to protect players and maintain a level playing surface.
These materials usually cannot be recycled in the same way, and therefore need to be effectively separated from the turf itself before the latter can be recycled properly.
This may not sound like a particularly difficult task in itself, but when you consider that professional soccer fields can measure in excess of 75,000 square feet, it does put things into perspective.
The technology to fully separate the materials used in artificial turf from one another is still being developed, so hopefully, we can expect to see further developments in artificial turf recycling in the near future.
Until then, though, the disposal issues surrounding artificial turf remain yet another contributor to soccer’s already concerning environmental footprint.
Professional soccer comes in right behind skydiving and just ahead of NASCAR as one of the world’s least eco-friendly sports, purely due to its popularity, and the amount of international travel relied upon to facilitate matches and tournaments.
Benefits of Turf
We’ve spent most of this article discussing the reason(s) why the majority of soccer players favor real grass over turf surfaces. However, none of these reasons negate the fact that there are some benefits to playing soccer on turf.
Although we’ve spoken about the increased injury risk that comes with playing on turf, there is one area in which turf may actually help to prevent injuries.
Because sand and other infill materials are used to keep turf pressed down and even out any wrinkles, turf provides a much smoother surface to play on than even the most well-kept grass.
Now, it’s true that this can lead to problems in itself, as we touched on in our section on turf’s impact on soccer play.
However, one advantage of the smoother playing field created by turf is that players may be less likely to trip over bumps in the field.
The accuracy of passes and shots may also be improved by the lack of obstruction, although, again, the opposite can also be true.
Moreover, because a turf field requires less maintenance than a grass field, it’s possible to play on a turf field more regularly and with fewer restrictions than it is on a grass pitch.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is turf cheaper than grass?
We didn’t include this point in our main comparison of turf vs. grass soccer fields because it’s not so much a concern for soccer players as it is for those who manage the pitches.
This is not a simple question to answer because it needs to be considered from 2 separate perspectives.
Granted, having a layer of turf installed over a soccer field-sized area will put you more out of pocket than planting a field of natural grass would.
However, the cost of maintaining that natural grass brings the total cost of a grass soccer field higher than that of a turf field over a prolonged period of time.
Maintenance tasks for natural grass include watering (a lot of water is needed to cover such a vast area), cutting, fertilizing, and weed and pest control, all of which
So, while grass has the edge over turf in terms of cost at the point of installation, turf actually wins overall where cost is concerned.
What is the difference between turf and artificial grass?
The terms ‘turf’ and ‘artificial grass’ are frequently confused when discussing alternatives to grass for soccer fields.
This is probably because turf football pitches are interchangeably referred to as ‘artificial,’ so a natural conflation occurs.
However, turf and artificial grass are actually 2 completely different surfaces.
Artificial grass is the kind of substitute for natural grass that you’d expect to find on front lawns and gardens.
Essentially, the purpose of artificial grass is to mimic the properties of natural grass in a material that requires less/no maintenance.
Most artificial grass is made of polyethylene plastic and is shaped and textured to closely resemble real grass.
On the other hand, turf or AstroTurf is normally made from other synthetic materials such as nylon and polypropylene and is designed specifically to achieve an even playing field for sports as opposed to replicating the appearance of grass accurately.
Soccer turf is more abrasive and shorter than artificial grass as it isn’t shaped into individual blades.
Well, that certainly was a lot to get through! If you’ve made it this far, thank you for sticking around and learning about one of the greatest controversies in the soccer world today.
The only way we can hope to improve playing conditions for athletes all over the world and make ‘the beautiful game’ beautiful for everyone is by having these discussions and coming up with solutions.
Ultimately, there are a whole host of reasons why soccer players prefer playing on grass to turf.
The primary reasons why soccer players generally prefer playing on grass are the increased risk of injury, the health implications of turf’s heat retention and chemical makeup, and the technical impact on play.
Another drawback to the use of artificial turf for soccer fields is that it’s ultimately the less eco-friendly option, even when all the grass maintenance tasks of watering, cutting, and pest control are factored in.
While there are some benefits to the use of turf on soccer pitches, including the cheaper maintenance costs, the ability to play on it for longer between maintenance procedures, the bottom line is that the majority of soccer players prefer to play on grass.
Perhaps, as existing manufacturing and disposal technologies become more advanced, we will see the playability and safety gap between real grass and artificial turf and real grass start to close. For now, though, in the ongoing playoff between grass and turf, grass still holds the title.