In the lead up to the 2015 FIFA Women World’s Cup, which will be hosted by Canada (World Cup), a group of the world’s elite female football players (including the FIFA Women’s World Players of the Year for 2012 and 2013, Abby Wambach and Nadine Angerer respectively, and Samantha Kerr and Caitlin Food of Australia) have commenced legal proceedings against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) in the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

The Legal Proceedings

The players are asserting in their application that the use of venues turfed with synthetic grass during the World Cup is discriminatory as it stands in direct contrast to the CSA’s and FIFA’s solicitude towards ensuring that the FIFA  Men’s World Cup matches are consistently played on natural grass.[1]

The players alleged that the use of synthetic grass – a purportedly inferior quality of playing surface – for the Women’s World Cup matches, in lieu of grass for the Men’s World Cup matches, constitutes gender discrimination as the venues provided for the matches are inherently unequal. The players allege that this is a breach by the World Cup organisers of section 1 of Canada’s Human Rights Code, which states that:

Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability.

The players also highlight the increased risks of injury posed by playing on synthetic grass, including skin abrasions, lacerations, knee and ankle sprains.[2]

In terms of the relief sought from Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, the players are seeking orders that the CSA and FIFA be prohibited from engaging in discriminatory conduct and be required to take all necessary steps to ensure that the World Cup matches are played on natural grass as opposed to synthetic grass. The players have suggested that the location of the matches be moved to stadiums, which are turfed with natural grass or, for the synthetic grass to be overlaid with natural grass at the current venues.

The players had to resort to commencing legal proceedings in Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in an effort to obtain the above relief as their previous attempts at petitioning in early 2013 and writing to the FIFA (the latest correspondence being on 28 July 2014) have failed to persuade the FIFA to change the venues and/or the playing surfaces.

The FIFA’s position

 It should be noted that when Canada won the bid in March 2011 (unopposed) to host the World Cup it only contemplated the use of synthetic grass venues.

The World Cup will be the first time that synthetic grass venues will be used by FIFA for any World Cup for senior men or, women players.

Nevertheless, FIFA is standing by its position that the use of synthetic grass is within the laws of the game. Tatjana Haenni, FIFA’s Deputy Director of the Competitions Division and Head of Women’s Competitions,  has stated that there are no plans to change the surface of the venues:

It’s in the competition regulations and in the laws of the game that artificial turf can be used for any international match including FIFA World Cup qualifiers and has been used for such matches. So that’s really no big discussion. It’s not about artificial turf yes or no, it’s just about what has to be in place is the quality.[3]

FIFA and the CSA have been given until 9 October 2014 to respond to the legal action.[4]

To view a copy of the players’ application to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, click here.