British soccer going the way of US football - onto artificial turf

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Britain's soccer players are starting to turn their backs on tradition and opt for playing surfaces based on artificial grass. Although soccer (known in Britain simply as football) has been the country's national game for more than a century, no one has worked out optimum specifications for pitches, whether these be made from grass or synthetic surfaces.

This will change, however, as a result of a scientific investigation by soccer authorities into what makes a perfect pitch.

The study, to be finished by the summer, will produce specific standards for soccer playing fields - and it could push more clubs to install these once-unwanted artificial surfaces.

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Of the 92 professional clubs in the football league of England and Wales, only one has a synthetic pitch. This is Queens Park Rangers, a club in London that converted from grass to plastic in 1981.

Unlike other sports such as hockey, basketball, and American football, in soccer the bounce of the ball is all important.

With many artificial pitches the surface is hard and lacks resilience. As a result, balls bounce unnaturally high. This has led footballers in Britain to view synthetic pitches - which are accepted in many sports in the United Kingdom - with professional scorn.

But two factors are causing the professional clubs to think again. First, many of the soccer clubs in England and Wales are in dire financial straits.

By installing artificial pitches that are more durable than the grass variety , the clubs could share facilities with other organizations, thus reducing the costs of running their own stadiums.

For example, more clubs are moving toward operating their pitches jointly with local authorities. The community can use the playing areas when a club has no scheduled activity.

The policy makes economic sense, as most clubs use their pitches no more than once a week.

In the forefront of clubs with this aim is Luton Town, a club 30 miles north of London. The club plans to move into a (STR)27 million ($37.8 million) American-style indoor stadium, complete with artificial turf, in 1985.

The club would make its pitch available for activities such as exhibitions and concerts.

The second reason soccer clubs are viewing synthetic pitches more favorably is that technical changes are making these surfaces more like grass. In their early forms, artificial turf was a simple mat of a plastic such as polypropylene. Such artificial turf was pioneered in the US in the 1960s.

Today's versions of such surfaces are tufted, with grains of sand sprinkled in the pile to make the surface less hard.

Further, the companies that install these pitches pay more attention to providing a correct ''foundation.'' Ideally, an artificial pitch should be a hollow filled with a soft material such as sand. This deadens the bounce of balls and makes the artificial surface ''feel'' more like the real thing.

In the scientific study just starting, technicians will attempt to quantify the characteristics of good-quality grass pitches. They will compare these with the best examples of synthetic playing areas.

Factors to be measured - with an array of instruments specially built for the job - include bounce, friction, and ''foot skid.''

The latter quantifies just how far a player will slide when he lunges into a tackle or is dispossessed of the ball as he runs down the soccer field.

The study will cost (STR)50,000, to be paid for by Britain's government-backed sports council and the football association, which regulates the activities of the country's soccer clubs.

John Smith, the managing director of Luton Town Football Club, supports the new investigation.

''We must have some specifications for the industry to follow. If we get these right, we could see an enormous increase in the use of the new materials, both in the professional and amateur game.''

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