STRI’s principal technical consultant, Dr Richard Gibbs, who project managed the pitches at 2018 World Cup in Russia, gives an insight into what goes on behind the scenes.
STRI: There’s a lot of razzmatazz on and off the pitch at the World Cup, yet pitch consultants are often the forgotten workers at these tournaments. What did your role involve?
Richard Gibbs (RG): Ours was a support role and it started many years before the World Cup tournament. Unlike previous World Cups in South Africa and Brazil where we reported to FIFA, our role in Russia was to work directly for the Local Organising Committee (LOC).
This role was more intensive and included reviewing and contributing to design specifications for training and stadium pitches, carrying out laboratory analysis of pitch construction materials, carrying out specialist ‘Hemiview’ light/shade analyses of the stadiums, and then monitoring progress as the pitches were upgraded or built from scratch.
We have been visiting Russia since October 2015 and since then carried out 17 tours of the various venues as well as delivering two dedicated pitch preparation and management workshops along with associated training manuals.
During the tournament itself we had one STRI consultant based at each stadium and their role was to ensure that pitches were prepared to the exacting standards required for a World Cup and to work in close liaison with the groundstaff, FIFA and venue management and the LOC Pitch Specialist.
STRI: How was the tournament from your side of the pitch?
RG: A 5-0 win for the home team at the opening game on a pristine pitch at a truly superb stadium – couldn’t get a better start than that. All the focus was on the games and players, as it should be, and the pitches performed superbly.
We’ve had some fantastic feedback and many media pundits commented that the quality of pitches helped make Russia 2018 one of the best World Cups ever. I’m very proud to hear that.
STRI: Providing consultancy for stadiums and training grounds is a huge operation. What did it take to pull it together?
RG: It all comes down to having efficient reporting and assessment systems, good office support, and a lot of flexibility and acceptance that long days and much travelling are involved.
I have actually lost count of the number of reports we produced but it would be in the hundreds, given that there were 12 stadium pitches, three venue specific training pitches per stadium and originally 64 team base camp pitches.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was making sure that our reporting and advice was consistent between consultants, so we had a very structured approach involving a peer review system and a single point of report distribution.
STRI: Do the players and managers appreciate the work that goes into pitch maintenance?
RG: We don’t really have time to speak to players or managers during the tournament, but we had no complaints and several players commented positively about the pitches in their press conferences. So, the answer must be yes!
STRI: What were you performance testing for?
RG: We carried out performance testing to assess consistency within a pitch as well as between pitches. Fortunately, in Russia we were dealing only with cool season turfgrass species and all the stadium pitches were sand-based.
The pitches also all had either a stitched or a carpet hybrid turf reinforcement system so consistency between venues was extremely good.
A feature of this World Cup was that the LOC purchased 12 sets of performance testing equipment, assembled by STRI, one for each venue. These kits have been left as a legacy item for Russian turfgrass management development.
STRI: Teamwork is very important. How did the STRI consultants work alongside the stadium’s Russian groundstaff?
RG: We’ve had a few years now to build up a really good working relationship with the LOC Pitch Specialists and stadium groundstaff. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a few simple hand signs. It also helps during the tournament to be wearing the same uniform as the LOC so that we are seen as part of the delivery team.
Many groundstaff in Russia of course had never experienced anything like a World Cup before and it was very satisfying to see the whole grounds team at a stadium rise to the challenge.
STRI: Firefighting problems is an important part of your work. What kind of issues do you face at major tournaments like this?
RG: A lot of the issues were down to timing because pitch preparation must fit tightly around ceremony rehearsals, team warm-ups, media requirements and so on.
The pitches had to be ready several hours before kick-off and it was quite easy to lose presentation. It was really important to liaise closely with the General Coordinator at each stadium so that any turf issues could be resolved quickly.
The biggest issue by far was that there were so many activities apart from the actual football match itself that had the potential to cause immense damage to the turf, such as multiple rehearsals for flag and opening or closing ceremonies and of course team training.
We had to constantly evaluate turf conditions and proposed activities and make sure that the turf always looked its best – not so easy when a couple of hundred volunteers had just walked all over a beautifully prepared pitch.
Team training on match day minus one (MD-1) was one of the biggest challenges to manage. Some teams were quite respectful of the turf, but others seemed quite happy to pulverise areas of the pitch during training.
Also, security was very tight, so getting machinery and consumables into and out of a stadium was extraordinarily difficult during the tournament period, particularly fertilisers. It was not unusual for some types of fertiliser to be removed from a stadium by the security personnel without any consultation. You could turn up one morning and it had gone!
The weather could also be a major challenge. Russia is a very big country and the range of weather conditions experienced around the various venues was huge. We had intense deluges of rain, hailstorms and very high temperatures well into the 30s.
We had bug infestations, equipment being confiscated and missed or delayed flights. All these things had to be anticipated and planned for. However, we have delivered major tournaments across the globe, so we are very experienced when the odd curveball is thrown at us.
STRI: What are the pressures involved in working outside of the UK?
RG: With modern communication technology, it was surprisingly easy to operate remotely. The 4G network is very good in Russia and all hotels had good Wi-Fi. We had a very well established communication protocol with our staff on site and with our project support team in Bingley.
The group stages were incredibly busy, with 48 matches at 12 venues over 15 days. So, there was no rest during this period at all – everyone had to contribute. There’s no 9-5 in the world of football.
STRI: Did you enjoy the matches or are you too busy keeping an eye on the surface?
RG: I only went to a few matches. One of my roles was to visit and support our consultants on site, particularly those that hadn’t been travelling regularly to Russia.
We made sure that all those consultants who either hadn’t been to Russia before or hadn’t previously been involved with a FIFA tournament got the opportunity to attend a test event prior to the World Cup. But you can’t beat standing around the pitch perimeter on match days – it’s the best position to study the turf in action.
STRI: Were you pleasantly surprised by anything you experienced at the World Cup?
RG: It was amazing how quickly everything comes together. Russia had a particularly hard winter which we got the tail end of in the UK in March (‘the beast from the east’). Temperatures were still below freezing in many venues throughout April and there was a lot of snow mould damage on many training pitches.
Media reports in March/April suggested that some venues would not be ready in time. But it was a different story in May – this was one of the best growing months experienced for a long time, so we were very fortunate with turfgrass recovery.
The LOC and stadium groundstaff in Russia were genuinely welcoming of our involvement and we were privileged to be leaving behind what we hope is a lasting legacy for turf management in Russia.
STRI: What are you looking forward to now the World Cup is over?
RG: The World Cup cycle never stops so I’m already looking forward to the next challenge – Qatar 2022.
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