The recent and serious injury suffered by American football star Aaron Rodgers, 39, has brought back to the fore the discussion about the type of pitch on which sports matches are played. The experienced quarterback ruptured the Achilles tendon in his left foot during his debut for the New York Jets.
The game was at MetLife Stadium, in New Jersey, a stadium that has used synthetic turf since 2010. The loss of the star for the rest of the season led a number of players to speak out against the use of artificial turf, asking for it to be replaced by grass. Natural.
The main argument behind the claim is that synthetic grass is harder and rougher than natural grass, which would increase the risk of injuries resulting from shots in which the player’s foot gets stuck in the surface, as occurred in the case of Rodgers
The stadium where the quarterback’s injury occurred will necessarily have to exchange its grass for a natural one by 2026. The MetLife Stadium is one of the arenas chosen for the next World Cup, which will be hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Currently, 8 of the 16 World Cup fields have artificial grass. FIFA (International Football Federation) has already warned that only natural grass can be used. According to the entity, the decision arises from the climate difference between the countries and aims to standardize the surfaces.
The organization of the Dutch Championship took a similar measure: all teams will be obliged to adopt the natural surface until the start of the 2025/26 season. Smaller clubs defended its use due to its lower cost, but were defeated by players’ criticism of the risk of injuries and the different impact of the ball on the grass.
In Brazil, some athletes have also taken a stand against laboratory grass. This is what Argentine midfielder Galoppo, from São Paulo, did, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a match against Palmeiras, at Allianz Parque, in March, and has not yet returned to play.
“I’m not in favor of first division teams having synthetic grass. Most of the fields are made of natural grass, and synthetic grass makes a difference in favor of the local team. Furthermore, Palmeiras’ synthetic grass is very worn out, and the ball passes very quickly. It looks like one of those synthetics for playing five-a-side football [society]. It’s not easy to play on that type of field,” he said, in an interview with Argentine daily Olé.
According to Palmeiras, the adoption of artificial grass, implemented in February 2020, was due to events and shows that damaged natural grass. With the synthetic, Palmeiras always plays on a field in “perfect conditions”, argues the club.
In addition to the São Paulo team, only Athletico Paranaense and Botafogo adopt artificial grass in their stadiums among the clubs in Series A of the Brazilian Championship.
Studies are not unanimous regarding the best lawn
There are a number of academic studies published on injuries to synthetic and natural grass, with different conclusions. Some of them point to a higher incidence of problems with synthetic grass, while others indicate natural grass as the most dangerous.
“There are variables such as the scope of the study, the methodological quality. There is no way to say that one is better than the other”, says Liu Chiao Yi, coordinator of the physiotherapy course at Unifesp (Federal University of São Paulo).
According to her, the possible conclusion is that there is an inverse relationship between the time an athlete performs on a given field and the injury rate. The longer you work on the same type of lawn, the lower the injury rate. As only three elite stadiums in Brazil use synthetic turf, players from other teams are not as familiar with it, which could actually end up increasing the injury rate, says Liu.
Júlio Cerca Serrão, coordinator of the Biomechanics Laboratory at the School of Physical Education and Sport at USP (University of São Paulo), says that, in a tropical country like Brazil, which does not suffer from climate issues for the growth of grass like In Europe, natural grass should prevail in stadiums, standardizing the game on a surface that all players have been accustomed to since childhood.
Serrão sees injuries on synthetic turf in Brazil arising more from the players’ lack of practice on the surface than from the characteristics of the grass itself. He points out that the type of grass is one more factor among several others that influence an injury, such as the boot, the physical structure and the way the athletes move. And he makes an analogy with accidents involving aircraft: “There is never just one cause for an event like this.”
A study published in April in the English scientific magazine The Lancet, dedicated only to football injuries, concluded that the incidence of injuries is 14% lower on artificial grass than on natural grass. The stable and homogeneous surface of the synthetic lawn can contribute to prevention, the authors pointed out.
According to Sergio Mainine, orthopedist at Ifor Hospital (Institute of Fracture Orthopedics and Rehabilitation), the evolution of artificial grass in recent years helps with prevention.
He recalls that, when the first amateur football pitches with synthetic grass began to become popular in the country, in the mid-1980s, he noticed an increase in cases of injuries among those who practice the sport who arrived in search of treatment. “Over the years and the evolution of artificial grass, injuries related to synthetic turf have decreased,” he says.
In the opposite direction, a July 2021 study in the North American publication Current Orthopedic Practice indicated a 58% higher risk of injury in young people in the United States who play American football on synthetic grass compared to those who play on natural grass.
A pioneer in the country, Athletico uses coconut fibers on the Ligga Arena pitch
Athletico Paranaense was the first among Brazilian first division clubs to adopt artificial turf, in February 2016. The team’s operations director, Fernando Volpato says that the main objective with the change was to improve the quality of the field, which does not suffer the same wear as natural wear, especially on rainy days.
According to him, there is periodic validation by FIFA, which requires that the floor presents characteristics that come as close as possible to natural grass. “The quality and regularity of our lawn prevents injuries,” says Volpato.
The director recognizes that the cost is also significantly lower for maintenance, around R$200,000 per year. With natural grass, the cost of electricity for artificial lighting alone reached R$1.2 million annually.
A technology is used at the Athetico stadium that uses coconut fibers as a basis for fixing the synthetic grass, which, according to the club, prevents the pitch from rising in temperature and allows players to slide without burns or scratches.
The grass itself is manufactured by national and foreign companies, such as Soccer Grass, Total Grass and Italgreen, from a type of plastic known as polyethylene.