Part of what makes football such an accessible sport, at least at a very casual level, is the ability to play it almost anywhere. Whether it be a concrete playground, a patch of sand on the beach or in the back garden, all you really need is a makeshift goal (we hear jumpers work quite well!) and you are good to go. When we are talking about a proper, official association football match though, these have historically been played on real, natural grass and soil.
In fact, for much of football’s professional history, there has not been any other option. Grass has long been, and in some cases still is, the sole choice for clubs when it comes to playing surface. Admittedly some badly maintained pitches from years gone by had very little grass and were little more than muddy bogs with barely visible white lines, but they were still natural turf pitches.
So, while natural turf dominates the game at the top levels, it does now at least face some competition. Modern innovation has seen the creation and rise of ‘artificial turf’ pitches, which look and act very, very much like the real thing. What exactly these artificial pitches are made of, plus their pros and cons, will be examined during this article.
Natural Turf Pitches
Although we will talk about ‘natural turf pitches’ as a homogenous group, it is worth mentioning the way they are maintained can differ significantly. In the world of professional football, the English are considered to be the experts when it comes to pitch management. As highlighted in this detailed piece by The Guardian, turf pitches are not all equal and they do vary in both their properties and characteristics. There are thousands of different grass varieties, each with their own thickness, resilience and other characteristics. Even the soil underneath differs, which is why you will find different types of soil for different sports.
As well as permanent differences, clubs can also decide how long or short they want the grass to be, providing it is within the boundaries set by the league. Mikel Arteta once complained that the grass at Turf Moor was too long following a 0-0 draw with Burnley, preventing his side from playing their usual passing game. He may well have been right that it was longer than most pitches, although it would have still been within the Premier League regulations (30mm) at kick-off as this is checked pre-game.
Burnley may well have done this intentionally (if true) as longer grass provides more resistance to the ball, thus slowing it down. As a general rule, this would be expected to work against a side, such as Arteta’s Arsenal, who favour quick, short passes. As there is more ability to modify a grass pitch compared to an artificial one, the home side can enjoy a slight advantage in certain fixtures. Something else clubs can control is how much they water the grass and soil. An overly watered pitch may be slow and slightly boggy but in contrast a good surface with a lightly watered top layer will be slick and should provide the perfect surface for a side wanting to play a quick, passing game.
One disadvantage natural turf pitches have over all-weather is the fact they can freeze when temperatures hit 0 degrees. Creating rock solid bits of mud, a frozen pitch is a real hazard and a match will not take place unless it has completely thawed prior to kick-off. Should this not happen in time, matches will be cancelled and it is easy to find examples of this at lower levels.
Bigger, richer clubs are, however, able to avoid frozen pitches thanks to having undersoil heating. During cold winter nights this gets turned on, ensuring the soil never gets cold enough to freeze. Pipes laid under the pitch allow hot water to flow through and whilst this is a great solution, it is an expensive one to install and maintain.
3G Artificial/All-Weather Pitches
Artificial pitches are also known as all-weather pitches due to the fact they are more weather-resistant than natural grass. These have also been referred to, more in the past, as plastic pitches. They are not 100% immune to all conditions, so cancellations can still occur, but they cope with harsher weather much better than grass, notably when it comes to frost or flooding. This is why such pitches have become a popular option in places such as Scandinavia and Scotland. Additionally, artificial pitches require no sun-light or watering, making them much easier and cheaper to maintain. In addition they do not suffer so much from wear and tear, so can be used by the community through the week and still provide a perfect surface come the weekend.
There is a larger upfront cost though, with artificial pitches often costing close to, or even in excess of, £1m. When Scottish side Hamilton forked out for a much improved, state-of-the-art surface at New Douglas Park in 2018, this set them back £750,000. But, while the extra upfront capital is needed, they do tend to be considerably cheaper in the long run due to the reduced maintenance.
For anyone that has played on artificial pitch themselves, especially in the summer, you may be aware that it can be rather unforgiving on bare skin. Sliding tackles are often banned for more casual matches because of this, as otherwise there would be a lot of bloodied knees by full time. Professional artificial pitches though will always watered pre-game, significantly reducing the risk of these friction burns.
Professional pitches also represent the best 3G surfaces around and these are very different to the artificial “plastic” pitches of days gone by. It is 3G (third generation) pitches which have revolutionised the artificial playing surface industry and the ones clubs use are likely to be of better quality than those use for recreational activities.
Such pitches use synthetic grass, usually between 40mm and 65mm in length, which sits on top of a layer of granulated rubber, with sand underneath. There are many further layers, such as a shock absorption bed, a ‘levelling layer’ made from porous bitmac, and a thick sub-base made of stone. Towards the very bottom of these many layers you will have a drainage tube that funnels water out away from the pitch. 3G pitches end up being very deep due to all their various layers and it is why they cost a lot of money to install.
It is a rather unavoidable expense though as clubs cannot just use an old 1G or 2G plastic pitch to replace a grass pitch. Professional grounds must meet certain standards and FIFA themselves ensure they are up to scratch. The world governing body of football have what is called ‘FIFA Quality Programme for Football Turf’. As per their website, “only artificial playing surfaces which have been tested in the laboratory and on the field according to the stringent testing criteria of the FIFA Quality Programme can be called football turf.”
FIFA will issue one quality mark for a surface that meets the requirement set out in the handbook and another for those that pass the test of the FIFA Quality Programme. This is why you will sometimes see artificial pitches called one- or two-star, with two-star being the top rating. Many competitions will insist that pitches are officially accredited, otherwise they will be ineligible to host matches.
In an attempt to get the best of both worlds, many top teams have forked out for state-of-the-art hybrid grass technology. Although found at clubs around the globe, this type of ultra-modern playing surface is particularly prominent in England. A host of Premier League clubs, such as Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Newcastle, among others, have installed it. The go-to brand for hybrid pitches is GrassMaster and it is 95% real grass with 5% artificial fibres, meaning it still complies with English Football League rules.
Having just a 5% artificial element may seem relatively trivial but this is enough to offer reinforcement for the real grass and create a far more durable surface. As per Liverpool’s own announcement prior to the 2022/23 season, “patented technology reinforces the natural grass by holding polyethylene fibres at the carpet base to a height of 45mm to be retained in the grass sward. It is then in-filled with sand, which is carefully selected to deliver optimal drainage and playing performance.”
Hybrid turf is grown off-site, in the best possible conditions, and then delivered to clubs to lay down. It is impossible to tell which club has what just by looking at the turf because to the naked eye hybrid pitches look no different than fully natural ones. They come with a substantial benefit though as the typical recovery time is much shorter. According to Liverpool FC, a standard (natural) in-stadia pitch requires a renovation window between seven to eight weeks but with a hybrid system this is reduced to three to four weeks. This allows the club to use the pitch for more of the year and delivers a better surface for longer.
Which Pitch Type Is Best?
For clubs based in harsher climates, an artificial pitch is likely to be simply more convenient and practical than a turf pitch. Additionally, for some clubs with tighter finances, having the lower running costs attached with 3G pitches may be the only real solution. In both cases though, artificial ground is not preferred over turf for footballing reasons.
If we are purely considering which pitch is best to play on, a strong majority would say natural turf or hybrid. This is something of a consensus among the footballing industry with players and managers regularly complaining about all-weather surfaces. Indeed, in one study, published in 2019, the majority of participants questioned “expressed a higher preference for natural grass over artificial turf pitches.”
Why does artificial turf have a relatively bad rep though? One reason is partly because managers love a good moan and being forced to play on something different is seen as something of a disadvantage. The home team are familiar with the surface as they play on it week in week out but the travelling side may have little to no experience, which will likely work against them. As per the study reference above though, concerns regarding a heightened injury risk, rather than a perceived unfair advantage, is what tends to bother managers and players the most.
There is a quite widely held view that 3G pitches are more dangerous for players, especially those that do not play on it regularly. Jose Mourinho, one of the most outspoken critics, said following a game with Young Boys Bern that “You know, probably some (players) fear injuries. I had some players after training yesterday – light training – and they were feeling ankles, back pains, sore.”
There is, however, no conclusive proof that playing on artificial turf increases the risk of injury. One major study that looked at 10 elite European clubs found little difference in injuries except for a higher risk of ankle sprains, although the numbers were low across both.
The Future of Football Pitches
Although 3G pitches are the standard for artificial ground at a professional level, you can find 4G pitches and even higher at semi-pro levels and below. You may hear talk of 4G, 5G and even 6G pitches but none of these (beyond 3G) have been recognised by the governing bodies of any major sports.
There are always advancements in technology but today’s 3G pitches do not really need much upgrading. It is not like the 1980s where artificial pitches in England were actively turning fans away because they led to such a poor quality of football. They were equally as unpopular with players too thanks to the so-called ‘tennis ball bounce’ of footballs and painful carpet burns which saw some players wear trousers.
In contrast, current artificial pitches perform at a high enough standard today that there is no real need to upgrade or replace them, especially as doing so would come at a cost many clubs could not afford. So, while surfaces at the professional levels may not change, how about the number of artificial pitches?
In the short-term it is hard to see a drastic change occurring. Many leagues have an outright ban on artificial pitches and have no plans on changing their stance any time soon. When Sutton United earned promotion to League Two in 2021, they were made to install a real grass pitch at an expense of £500,000, as no exceptions are permitted.
Over the border in Scotland, they have been more welcoming of 3G pitches, although they are still seldom spotted in the top flight. There was some speculation of them copying England’s anti-3G stance but a ban would require 75% of Scottish League clubs to vote in favour. Given that 17 of the 42 clubs (at the time) had artificial pitches, such a motion is unlikely to gather sufficient support.
In the Netherlands, a place that had initially welcomed 3G pitches, they announced that starting from the 2025/26 season, artificial surfaces would not be allowed in the top tier. Evidently, it is a debate with supporters on both sides and football is unlikely to draw anything forming a consensus on such pitch surfaces anytime soon. However, what does seem certain is that hybrid pitches will remain the top choice for most of western Europe’s biggest teams.