Artifical grass, artificial turf, astro turf, call it what you want. This stuff has revolutionised the world of football over the last 20 years.
With its long, lush carpet features, it’s almost as good as real grass. Some would say it’s even better. It plays evenly, doesn’t wear into a mud bath and, after it has been installed, it’s relatively maintenance free.
But artificial turf is still mysterious to some of us and there’s a lot of confusing information out there about it. In this article we’re going to check out everything you need to know about the ‘magic carpet’ that has revolutionised the way we play our field sports, especially 5-a-side.
3G vs 4G Artificial Turf – what’s it all about?
No doubt you’ve heard the terms 3G and 4G, bandied around. No, they’re not different types of phone signal. They refer to ‘third generation’ and ‘fourth generation’ types of artificial turf. The general idea is that the more G, the more technological advancement it incorporates, and the closer it should resemble playing on real grass.
These days though, everyone is keen to offer you a little more ‘G’ than anyone else (oi mate… are you after a bit more ‘G’?) with some claiming to have 5G, 6G, and even 7G turf. Very quickly, the descriptions of these surfaces are beginning to resemble bra-sizes, and it surely won’t be long before someone is offering us 36 double-G.
The truth is, officially we haven’t really got beyond 3G. What’s more, how we’ve arrived at 3G in the first place is a little confusing, since nobody seems to agree exactly on what constituted 1G or 2G. Generally though, it’s now acknowledged that when it comes to 2G vs 3G surfaces, this is the difference:
- 2G – the classic sand-based very short carpet-style pitch. Popular in the 1990s, You wouldn’t really call this artificial ‘grass’ at all, as it was more like the very rough carpet of somebody who lived by the beach and never hoovered. Great for field hockey, but not the best for football as there was not much in the way of grip, and if you were unlucky enough to fall on these surfaces, you’d usually end up with grazes all over your knees.
- 3G – has a longer pile (the technical way of saying ‘longer strands’), so it looks like blades of grass. These surfaces have sand and rubber-crumb (more on this below) spread all over it to improve the surface (they call this the ‘infill’). It’s also typically fitted with an underlying drainage system and some shock-absorbing underlay (to make it kinder on the joints). Compared to 2G, it’s a dream to play on.
Why do people claim to have more than 3G?
There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, and most cynically, it’s a sales-strategy. Who wants to be playing on 3G when they’re being told that there’s 4G, 5G or even 6G available? And since none of us know any better, we’ll usually believe it.
But secondly, there are some manufacturers who believe that they may legitimately have developed 4G surfaces. Although there’s no common agreement on what defines a 4G surface, the distinction that the manufacturers generally try to draw is that their versions of 4G surfaces are long-pile, but do not need any rubber infill.
Interestingly, the FA in their ‘3G Football Turf Guidance’ (2012) said the following:
“At the moment there is no such thing as 4G or 5G, terms sometimes used by sales-people. Some manufacturers may promote non-infilled products, but these have not received acceptance as a suitable football surface and often struggle to satisfy FIFA requirements”
That was back in 2012, but there’s still no sign that the FA or FIFA officially recognise any advancement on this. In 2015 the FA continued to announce they were rolling out a programme of 3G pitches across the UK.
What are those black rubber bits you find on artificial turf?
This is called ‘rubber crumb’, and you’ll find thousands of these little things on 3G playing surfaces.
Rubber crumb is recovered from scrap tires or from the tire retreading process and has a number of other uses beyond covering football pitches, such as being used in road construction.
James Dooley of Soft Surfaces Ltd, explains why billions of these rubber crumb particles are used on artificial turf all over the world:
“These rubber infill particles help to keep the fake grass fibres upright and replicate natural playing characteristics of real grass. The rubber crumb can also help to cushion players’ muscles and joints during training and matches to prevent injury and strain. It’s important to keep a 3G fake grass pitch in top condition by regularly redistributing the rubber infill and topping it up if it becomes low, this will maintain good playing qualities and prevent the turf from becoming slippery.”
Why do I get so many of these rubber bits in my shoes when I play?
There might be billions of these rubber crumbs on pitches, but I must have taken thousands of them home in my shoes over the years!
Each time I play I’ll still find a couple of rubber bits stuck to my socks, which somehow get on my carpets at home. Post-match vacuuming has almost become a part of my cool-down routine.
Being the geek that I am, I recently became curious about how many of these little black crumbs I was bringing home with me each time I played so, after each game (1 hour long), I’d remove my shoes and very carefully empty as many rubber bits as I could into a container.
Yep, I was aware this was odd behaviour and it brought a few bewildered questions from my wife, most of which were about how I was using her Tupperware, but after just three games I had collected this proud pile of rubber:
Although it looks like a lot and I could certainly feel it building up inside my shoes by the end of the game, it only weighs 6g. Given that a car tire weighs 10kg, I’m still roughly another 4,997 games away from collecting enough rubber bits to to melt them back down and return them ‘full-circle’ to their former life as a car tire.
It won’t happen. But only because my wife wants her Tupperware back.
Are 3G Turf pitches safe?
There have been two concerns about the safety of these pitches. Firstly, there has long been a view that players are more likely to get injured on artificial pitches.
In 2013, the Journal of Sports Medicine published a study looking at 1.5 million hours of training and match play and almost 10,000 injuries. In doing this, they found that there was:
“no evidence that playing matches or training on artificial turf raises the risk of soccer players sustaining injury. In fact, the evidence suggests that the risk of some injuries and some subgroups might be lowered.”
They go on to admit that further investigation needs to be done, but it’s a strong start.
The second safety fear has been around whether the rubber-crumb might be harmful, particularly to young children. The US Environmental Agency did a limited study across a small number of facilities and concluded that the limited data they collected do not point to a concern. Still, don’t go eating any rubber crumb or anything crazy like that.
Is Artificial Turf better than Natural Grass?
That depends who you ask. If you could guarantee top-notch grass surfaces every single time, then the majority of people would opt for natural grass. But as anybody who has been down to their local grass football field knows, it’s incredibly rare to find grass in perfect condition. Grass surfaces are often patchy, muddy, uneven and at the mercy of whatever weather conditions are prevailing at the time.
An organisation called ‘Fans for 3G’ ( a movement that aims to get full-sized 3G pitches into professional clubs) put the benefits of artificial turf well. Here’s a summary of their arguments.
- Good 3G pitches play like natural grass, before it gets all worn and patchy.
- Research has shown that there is no increased risk of injury on artificial grass.
- Because these surfaces offer a consistent roll and bounce of the ball all over the pitch, 3G pitches encourage technically better play than grass.
- 3G surfaces are playable in a lot more weather conditions resulting in little, if any postponements.
There are lots of other benefits that they list when it comes to getting professional football clubs to use these pitches, but the above are the ones that are relevant to 5-a-side pitches.
One of the coolest things about artificial grass 5-a-side pitches is that they now come in all sorts of incredible colours. And you can’t get that effect with natural grass, unless you’re on hallucinogenic drugs…
By the way, if you’re interested in seeing a full 11-a-side artificial turf pitch in action, you can watch this entertaining game between Harlow Town and Barkingside (YouTube). It’s an entertaining fixture, a high-scoring game and includes some hapless lower-league defending, comments from a very small but lively crowd and a quite bewildering (annoying?) air-raid siren that goes off after each Harlow goal.
What footwear should I wear for artificial turf?
If it’s 3G, rubber-crumb astroturf, you can wear anything you want as long as it has some grip on it. Special astrotuf trainers, moulded boots, through to long studs – it should all be ok, although check with your local centre. Most manufacturers are developing boots especially for artificial turf these days. Check out our guide to picking your perfect pair of boots for artificial grass and astro turf.