Sports Field coordinator Justin Lang chases the FIFA grass quality standard.
Can you imagine? The result of your hard work, watched by millions of fans from all over the world. To most people, it remains a dream. For Justin, it’s a reality that’s coming up fast. In July, the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in Australia and New Zealand, and AAMI Park is one of the host venues. It’s up to Justin and his team to provide a perfect stadium pitch that meets the FIFA standard. “We’ve got a massive responsibility, but we believe we’re up for the challenge and want to give the players the world-class playing surface they deserve.”
AAMI Park hosts six matches in eighteen days. But a busy playing schedule is no cause for concern for Justin and his team, as they are used to short recovery time at multipurpose AAMI Park.
“A busy playing schedule is nothing new, Justin explains. Since the start of this year, we’ve had over fifty pitch usages, and we’re only halfway through the year. With A-League soccer running from October until May, Rugby League from March until September, and Rugby Union from February until the end of May as well, it can get pretty challenging to keep the stadium pitch in good condition. Any given week, we could have two, possibly three, sporting events in three days; Rugby Union on Friday night, A-League soccer on Saturday, and Rugby League on Sunday, for instance. There are probably four weekends a year with three fixtures, the rest of the weeks are ‘double headers’, where we have an event on Friday and Sunday.”
With multiple crews working their shifts, the grounds team manages to get the pitch ready for the next event in time.
“Let’s say the game ends at 10pm. We wash off the lines, change the goal posts from rugby posts to soccer posts, and do pitch maintenance. We’re usually busy until 2am. The following day, the next crew starts at 7am to mow the pitch and mark the new lines. And then the same process starts all over again. Our experience with multiple events in a short period of time will help us during the World Cup. And just like during the regular season, the lighting rigs will be a massive asset for us. They give the grass energy and enable good recovery and wearability. With the upcoming World Cup matches, we wanted to take grow lighting to the next level and upgrade to the latest technology.”
With four LED440 grow lighting units, AAMI Park is well-equipped with the latest grow lighting technology available.
“As soon as we saw SGL launch their LED grow lights, we knew we needed to upgrade to the newest technology available. Over the past years, I’ve done a lot of research, trials, and data collection to build a business case, and knew that this technology is what we needed to maintain a world-class pitch. In addition to helping us to achieve a high-quality pitch, the LED technology is more energy efficient, adding an important sustainability benefit to the case for making the switch. With LED, we can provide the same amount of light intensity as with the old HPS units, but with much more efficiency. We can treat the same area, with almost half of the energy consumption and better results. The TurfPods provide us with all the pitch data we need, and help us deploy the lighting rigs as efficiently as possible.
The LED440’s make a massive difference. They help the grass grow on parts of the pitch where we never used to get any recovery. So instead of replacing turf because of wear and tear, we put on the lighting rigs to restore the damaged areas. Also, we’re helping the environment. Healthy grass tends to photosynthesize more efficiently, leading to increased CO2 absorption. It’s just all positives. I’m happy that we have this equipment. Opportunities like hosting World Cup matches don’t come around too often, so we need to make the most out of it and prove to everyone we can prepare and maintain a world-class pitch.”
The main objective is to maintain a high quality playing surface, all throughout the tournament. To achieve world-class quality, Justin and his team decided to install a brand-new pitch.
“The World Cup is the biggest event we’ve ever had at AAMI Park. We need to give it the respect it deserves and take pitch quality to the next level. I’ve been in Brazil to oversee the turf during the FIFA 2014 World Cup, we hosted games for the AFC Asian Cup in 2015, and we host A-League matches. So we know football, but the World Cup is next level. Over the last two years, we’ve had multiple inspections by FIFA representatives. They are pretty strict about grass requirements and expectations, but so far, all test results have come back positive. All in the right range and heading in the right direction.
It’s important to understand that we’re installing a new turf in the middle of winter. It’s six to ten degrees Celsius here in Melbourne. With those temperatures, the grass shuts down. That was also a big reason why we invested in LED grow lighting units. They give the canopy the energy it needs and help to grow the new turf in as quickly as possible.”
With the help of the new grow lighting units, Justin is confident that they can keep the stadium pitch up to the FIFA standard, despite the short turnaround time.
“The longest break between matches is seven days. The rest is all two or three day breaks in between events. We want to make use of the lighting units as much as we can. We’ll put the rigs on straight after the game and take them off in the morning of the next game day. Basically, the only time we won’t be using the lights is during a game. If we didn’t have the lighting units, we wouldn’t be able to grow the new sod in, and the playability and wearability would not be up to the quality FIFA expects.”
Of course, it’s the players that are the most important, but Justin’s focus will be on the pitch. Having millions of fans watching your work is as rewarding as it is nerve wrecking.
“Being able to show off your work on a global stage is great. Sometimes people underestimate the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. They think you snap your fingers and you’ve got your perfect pitch. It’s nice to get recognition on a global scale, but it also adds pressure. It’s about reputation. Not only my reputation, but also the reputation of FIFA, Melbourne & Olympic Parks, and the Victorian Government. There’s a lot at stake, but we’re sure it’s going to be a success!
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