Abby Wambach, players drop World Cup turf suit

U.S. forward Abby Wambach and a group of fellow players have withdrawn their complaint of gender discrimination over the artificial turf fields to be used for this year's World Cup in Canada.

The artificial turf became a contentious issue with the players, who have claimed that the surface is less forgiving than natural grass and impacts play because of concerns over injury. They also claim that balls travel and bounce differently on turf.

But their overriding complaint was one of equity: The men's World Cup is held on real grass.

"I am hopeful that the players' willingness to contest the unequal playing fields -- and the tremendous public support we received during the effort -- marks the start of even greater activism to ensure fair treatment when it comes to women's sports," Wambach, who spearheaded the lawsuit, said in a statement on Wednesday.

The players' complaint was filed last fall with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

It named FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, and the Canadian Soccer Association.

Neither budged in reconsidering the planned surface for the event.

The World Cup will be played in six Canadian cities starting in June, with an expanded field of 24 teams. The final is scheduled for July 5 at Vancouver's BC Place.

A lawyer for the women said that the women's protest did accomplish some of its goals, including showing that female athletes will not passively accept gender discrimination.

"The players' united, international effort to protest discrimination has had a positive impact," said the group's lawyer, Hampton Dellinger, via statement. "The deplorable artificial surface at BC Place, the site of the final, will be replaced. Goal-line technology will be used for the first time in a Women's World Cup and we know that the 2019 World Cup will be held on grass."

Last month, FIFA showed little interest in an offer to meet with the players in the case, which was known as Wambach et al v. Canadian Soccer Association.

Dellinger said the case "highlighted continuing gender inequity in sports and lessened the chance that such wrongdoing will occur in the future."

Last month, the players had amended the lawsuit after several players expressed fear of discrimination from both FIFA and the CSA for their role in the protest.

The players alleged that Mexican international Teresa Noyola and French internationals Camille Abily and Elise Bussaglia had been threatened with reprisals if they proceeded with the turf lawsuit. Noyola, according to an earlier players' filing, had been told she would not be invited to play for the Mexican team unless she withdrew her name from the legal challenge. All three did withdraw from the complaint in December.

Dellinger said the case was complicated by what he called "sexism, greed, and stubbornness endemic to FIFA and CSA," and encouraged fans to support the event, slated for June and July across Canada.

"Those that enabled FIFA and CSA to engage in discrimination and retaliation through their actions or silent acquiescence, particularly national soccer federations, should also be held to account," Dellinger said. "The on-field skill, courage, and determination the players will display will redeem the tournament from the ineptitude and ingratitude of its organizers."

FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke issued a statement saying that over the past several months he had met with players and the technical staffs from World Cup-qualified teams.

"What was very clear from the meetings with the players was their desire and enthusiasm about making this the greatest FIFA Women's World Cup ever, and to ensure that they have the best possible conditions to perform well,'' he said. "This is a goal they share with FIFA and we are totally committed to providing the best possible surface to enable everyone to enjoy a great footballing spectacle.''

Valcke said both sides can now focus on the preparation and promotion of the event.

The federation's head of women's competitions, Tatjana Haenni, spoke at an event promoting women's soccer in Philadelphia last week and acknowledged concerns about the condition of the artificial turf currently in place at BC Place. Plans have since emerged to upgrade the surface before the World Cup.

Wambach was joined in the complaint by several other top players, including U.S. striker Alex Morgan, Germany's Nadine Angerer and Spain's Veronica Boquete.

Even actor Tom Hanks took up the players' cause, going to Twitter last year to say: "Opinion: Women's World Cup is the best Soccer of the year. Hey FIFA, they deserve real grass. Put in sod. Hanx.''

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant also took to social media to post a photo of Sydney Leroux's battered legs after a match on artificial turf.

Earlier this month, Wambach and Germany midfielder Nadine Kessler met with a FIFA delegation, including Valcke, before the Ballon d'Or ceremony in Zurich. At the time, Wambach said she did not expect natural grass fields to be approved ahead of the June 6 kickoff.

FIFA changed its rules in 2004 to allow sanctioned matches on certain artificial surfaces. A few games at the 2010 men's World Cup in South Africa were played on grass that had been reinforced by artificial fibers.

FIFA rules also state that all matches and practices for the World Cup must be held on the same surface.

Canada's bid for the event stipulated that the final be played on the artificial field at BC Place, which seats 55,000. Canada is also expected to bid for the men's 2026 World Cup -- possibly competing with bids from the United States and Mexico -- but it is unlikely any bid that includes artificial turf would have a chance at winning.

The two countries bidding for the 2019 Women's World Cup, France and South Korea, plan to host matches on natural grass.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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