Before You Go - April 2014
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World-Class Turf
Preparing for the 2014 FIFA World Cup

By Deborah L. Vence

Planning for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil has been years in the making with the construction of 12 stadiums to house the matches set to be held between June 12 and July 13.

But, in addition to the actual construction, a big part of the preparations for the World Cup has involved producing sod for the stadiums.

Of the 12 natural grass fields that are being prepared for competition, Sod Solutions, a Mt. Pleasant, S.C.-based company that markets and develops improved turf grasses for home lawns, sports fields and golf courses across the United States, is producing sod for five of the 12 World Cup stadiums, including Maracană in Rio and Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha (new venue in Brasília).

"All stadiums for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil were built using a sandy soil profile to improve drainage and reduce organic matter accumulation," said Roberto Gurgel, member of the Sports Turf Managers Association and executive director of research for Sod Solutions. "Celebration Bermudagrass was the variety used on the majority of the playing surfaces, coming from the closest sod farm for each particular stadium. In one case, however, the closest sod farm was 1,200 miles away or a 24-hour trip. Six stadiums were ready by May 2013 and hosted the Confederations Cup in June 2013."

Gurgel explained that a sand-based soil profile is very important for any kind of sport field.

"The sand helps to drain excess water from heavy rains, keeping the fields without standing water. Clay-based soils do not allow the excess water to drain quickly and reach the drainage pipes below the soil profile," he said. "That can cause problems and make the sport field turn muddy and compacted. Additionally, clay can withhold nutrients from being used by the grass. The grass can use the nutrients applied by fertilizers faster on sandy soils than on clay soils. Sand-based soils are easier to manage and provide the test growing media for the plant with a good balance of water, air and nutrients."

This year, some of the fields for the World Cup were sprigged while others were sodded. In the past, all of them were sodded.

"New varieties were used, like Celebration. In several fields, a plastic fiber was added to the soil profile before planting to reinforce the soil by making it firmer and less giving," he said.

Normally, soccer fields in tropical countries and the southern United States use varieties of Bermudagrass. However, many of the new stadiums in Brazil, Gurgel said, were built with tall structures and extra coverage to protect the fans.

"That is great for the fans, but bad for old Bermuda varieties. Bermudagrass varieties have little shade tolerance. Celebration has the best shade tolerance among the Bermudagrass varieties," he said. "It is very well documented on many research studies from NCSU, Clemson and other universities. Because of that (its excellent shade tolerance), Celebration was the best solution for the WC stadiums with excess of shade."

To boot, Celebration Bermudagrass is very aggressive, recovering quickly from wear damage. Soccer is the national sport in Brazil and excessive games have been a problem on many of the World Cup venues ready since last year.

"Just as a comparison, while a football stadium in the U.S. hosts an average of 10 to 12 games during the season, one of the stadiums for the 2014 WC hosted 24 games in two months last year in Brazil. If it wasn't for Celebration, there would not be much grass left on the field after that many games," he added.

Gurgel, a native of Sao Paulo who moved to the United States in 2003, travels back and forth to oversee five sod farms that grow Celebration Bermuda grass and distribute to the stadiums.

His job involves overseeing proper maintenance of the sod farms in order to have the fields ready when needed. And, several aspects are important, with three being at the top of the list:

  • The first is mowing height and frequency. "Fields must be mowed at around one inch. During the summer, that translates into mowing almost every other day, so the grass is not scalped when mowed."
  • Second, the fields need to be weed free and good management with nutrients, water and other cultural practices help the grass to be stronger and naturally keep the weeds out. "Sometimes, herbicides need to be used to prevent weeds to grow on the fields that will be harvested. When that happens, the local manager has to use the proper products to eliminate the weeds with the least impact on the main grass."
  • And, third, fertilization and sod quality also are very important. "Keeping the grass healthy and strong will produce a perfect roll and will not break when is being handled. It is important to supply the right nutrients to make the grass grow and stay healthy. Too much fertilizer will create a balance issue and the grass can get a disease. Too little nutrients and the grass will not grow, becoming weaker and less likely to establish a nice field at the final location."