All eyes were on São Paulo where Brazil took on Croatia in the opening game of the World Cup. More than a billion people were expected to tune in to see the likes of Neymar, Oscar and Luka Modric kick off the world's biggest sporting event, but fans of sustainable sport should not get too distracted by the silky skills on display and instead take a moment to focus on the playing surface.
For the first time, the World Cup curtain raiser will take place on a hybrid grass system pioneered by Dutch company Desso, better known for its carpet tiles, but increasingly building a name for itself by delivering perfect sporting surfaces.
Desso's GrassMaster system involves injecting around 20 million artificial turf fibers two centimeters apart into a natural grass pitch. They provide an anchor for the grass roots to wrap around, resulting in a pitch that can take up to four times as much playing time as a natural grass pitch and lasts 15 years with only regular reseeding, removing the need for intensive machinery bringing in sods several times a season and cutting down maintenance activity,
São Paulo will host five other games, including England's game against Uruguay on June 29 and a semi-final, which if all goes to plan for the host nation will feature Brazil.
Roy Hodgson's team should be right at home on GrassMaster — the St. George's Park training center features the technology, while Wembley Stadium installed the turf technology in 2010 and has since staged more than 150 football, rugby and NFL matches on the surface, including nine matches in 11 days during the 2012 Olympic Games, as well as the equivalent of six months of concerts.
According to company chief executive Alexander Collot d'Escury the ability to host sporting events ranging from football to rugby and athletics as well as gigs and festivals means stadiums can boost revenues by hosting more events — so much so that they can deliver a payback on their turf investment within a year.
Moreover, the system fits neatly within Desso's circular economy ethos of eliminating waste by designing materials and products that can be easily remanufactured. "The system works for 15 years and after that you can take the system out, then we can reuse that yarn and close the loop," Collot d'Escury says. "The 20 million fibers can be reused and made into new fibers for pitches."
GrassMaster made its World Cup debut at two stadiums in South Africa four years ago, and fitted out the Donetsk and Kharkov stadiums in the European Championships two years later. Collot d'Escury credits high-profile Premier League customers including Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, with driving interest among European giants. Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Ac and Inter Milan, as well as the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, have all confirmed orders.
"We did Old Trafford last summer and we were supposed to do three more training pitches, but they said we have to wait for the new coach to approve it," Collot d'Escury says. "Now with van Gaal we got the confirmation it's OK. So we're very pleased."
Desso was in line to supply several other pitches in Brazil, including at the iconic Maracanã, where the World Cup final will be played. But, as Collot d'Escury tactfully puts it, "in the end it was very difficult for the local people to decide" on the investment.
Instead, the latest installation is at Singapore's 55,000-seater National Stadium, which will not only be used for football and rugby, but cricket. To that end, the authorities have installed a GrassMaster-reinforced wicket that can be lifted in and out depending on the sport being played.
Collot d'Escury admits to knowing little of cricket but has been told that the wicket will be more consistent as a result of the technology and remains sanguine when it's put to him that a decaying pitch is integral to many spectators' enjoyment of the game. "I know there's a big tradition of what you can and can't do [with the pitch] in cricket, but it will be fine," he insists.
And Collot d'Escury is equally certain that the World Cup offers a fantastic chance to showcase circular economy thinking. Desso is among 50 leading companies, including Marks & Spencer, BT, Kingfisher and Unilever, to commit to the Circular Economy 100, a global platform established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to accelerate the development of so-called cradle to cradle technologies and business models.
Studies conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have claimed that moving to a circular economy could add up to $1 trillion a year in value to European businesses and Collot d'Escury believes that more and more companies are realizing the economic and environmental opportunities of more sustainable growth models.
"I think it's really taking off," he says. "If you see the drive in the U.S. in terms of the circular economy there's a huge interest, while people in other parts of the world like China see that that growing and polluting the environment is unsustainable. People see a way out of this financial crisis is to redesign."
But he is less sure his Holland team will get a second opportunity to play on the São Paulo pitch, after their first round game there. "Holland will play Chile on the 23rd fortunately," he says, adding that they might just return for the semi-final. "Well, let's be optimistic, but I think it's a stretch. We have a young team with new players and our first game is against [World Champions] Spain."
And England, de facto home of the GrassMaster pitch? "England will do well, I think. You are much stronger favorites than the Dutch. I hope we meet in the final."
That final will not be on a hybrid pitch. But with future competitions taking place in the more inhospitable environments of Russia and Qatar, it can only be a matter of time before all top level pitches embrace resource efficient approaches to delivering the perfect playing surface.