305,000 pounds of grass seedlings grew into the World Cup’s eight stadium pitches and 81 practice fields
The ideal grass for a soccer field is deep green and sharply striped, and it is mowed to the exact length—23mm—for optimal ball speed. Aside from that, features may differ.
The ideal grass for a World Cup stadium requires years of testing and research by teams of knowledgeable agronomists. This year, PlatinumTE Paspalum, a variety of grass grown by Georgia-based Atlas Turf International, won the World Cup contract.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” said Atlas Turf CEO John Holmes, referring to the grass on the pitch rather than the tournament’s nail-biting unpredictability in which venerable giants have lost to victorious underdogs. All eight stadiums and 81 practice fields for the World Cup are covered in paspalum from Atlas Turf.
If something goes wrong, it will negatively affect how well their marquee grass performs.
“You don’t want to see anyone get injured,” Holmes remarked while he watched the matches on screen.
With tightly packed blades and deep roots, good turf grass provides stability and prevents players’ feet from slipping as they run quickly and stop abruptly. Holmes examines the goal line, which experiences some of the most intense wear on the field, for any flying pieces of turf. He keeps an eye out for death on corner kicks. After all, they are the hardest to keep alive because they receive the least sunlight. He states that the grass has stood up well so far.
This tournament is the largest world stage Atlas Turf’s grass has ever faced, among the most challenging situations. It gives a glimpse into the future of grass that will be used on fields and golf courses worldwide as the climate becomes more inhospitable and requires less water and carbon-emitting fertilizer than other types of grass.
A grass for a hostile climate
Qatar, an arid desert country not known for its verdant meadows or babbling brooks, has three main challenges: water, air, and light. “You’ve got almost every condition going against you there,” Holmes stated.
The water used to irrigate the grass is poor quality, and either desalinated saltwater or treated sewage is used. Qatar’s stadiums were designed for maximum shade because of the intense desert sun, which is helpful for preventing heat stroke but less ideal for photosynthesis. There isn’t much air movement inside the stadiums, which are almost completely shut. Atlas Turf’s paspalum was chosen for its aesthetic appeal as well as its tolerance to complex conditions: salty water, still air, and low light.
How to get grass bloom in the desert
A grass that can withstand poor water, little light, and dry air is not a naturally occurring grass, but it is descended from one: seashore paspalum, a tropical grass with high salt tolerance. Researchers then developed generations of increasingly specialized, individually patented paspalum turf grass by selectively breeding this grass for specific characteristics, including color and root length.
The paspalum used by Atlas Turf was developed by plant breeder Ron Duncan, who patented several types of grasses at the University of Georgia. After going into private practice, he developed what would eventually become Atlas Turf’s PlatinumTE Paspalum in 2007, differing from previous iterations by its disease tolerance and a thicker leaf blade.
Adel, a town in southern Georgia with a population of around 5,000, is where Atlas Turf grows its grass. The grass stolons, or sprigs, are harvested at 90 days, washed, arranged in boxes, and sent to Doha by refrigerated air cargo.
In 2014, the first shipment was made to Al-Rayyan Stadium. 305,000 pounds of stolon were sent to Doha by Atlas Turf during the following few years. There, fields near each stadium are planted with grass until the individual sprigs come together to form a field. They are then rolled up, transferred to inside the stadiums, and unrolled into the equivalent of 178 acres of field.
Lower inputs for a world that is changing
In some ways, Qatar serves as a testing ground for turf grasses in a hotter, deer drought-stricken world less hospitable to grasses and most living things in general.
A large part of what has fueled the development of turf grass in recent years, Holmes said, has bred grasses that use less water, pesticides, and fertilizer, some of the main contributors to carbon emissions, in preparation for a world with a changing climate. According to Holmes, Atlas Turf’s paspalum uses 25% to 30% less water than other grasses and, depending on conditions, can survive on 3 pounds of fertilizer as opposed to 14 to 15 pounds for Bermudagrass.
Although it’s an improvement, turf grasses are more likely to contribute to the problem than the solution.
In Qatar, it takes a lot of carbon to create the conditions that will keep the grass alive. Manufactured cooled air must be pushed straight onto the turf, and according to a report by Reuters, each pitch needs more than 2,200 gallons of water per day in the winter and 11,000 gallons per day in the summer. Most of the water is derived from Desalination, a fossil fuel-intensive process that harms marine ecosystems. Desalination is a major driver of this World Cup’s carbon footprint.
All together, the World Cup fields are bigger than the typical 150-acre American golf course. Golf courses occupy 2 million acres in the US. These courses are carpeted with turf grasses like PlatinumTE Paspalum and others, even in high-maintenance desert environments where a spotless field is challenging to sustain organically.