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National Stadium pitch under fire

Concerns turn to readiness for packed sports calendar ahead as players rate turf sub-par. 

SINGAPORE: The brickbats came fast and furious, first from Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri who blamed the National Stadium’s pitch for his decision not to field superstar forward Carlos Tevez for Saturday’s game against the Singapore Selection at the S$1.33 billion Sports Hub.

A mini-tournament held the next day also saw ex-national and S-League footballers expressing their surprise at the pitch’s condition, which was patchy at best. This despite the 55,000-seater National Stadium boasting a state-of-the-art Desso GrassMaster system, a combination of synthetic fibres woven into natural grass to make it more durable. Costing an estimated €500,000 (S$833,000), the hybrid turf is also used in London’s Wembley and Emirates stadiums.

The National Stadium’s first event late June , the Rugby World Club 10s, saw teams kicking up sand clouds, though many had expected the grass to be in tip-top shape for the Juventus visit over a month later.

LionsXII assistant coach Nazri Nasir, who captained the national team from 1997 to 2003, got his first taste of action on the grass at Sunday’s mini-tournament, and he told TODAY: “I was surprised that the pitch was not ready yet. It was very soft, very sandy and uneven. Maybe the artificial grass needs time to set in and hopefully, it will be better in one or two months.

“The grass might be used at Wembley, but they only have summer for two to three months and the temperature is cold the rest of the time, so all these things need to be looked at. (If not), the speed of the game will slow down, the movement of the ball will be affected, and you won’t get the best ball intensity.”

Added former Home United midfielder Rhysh Roshan Rai, 29, who also got a run on the field on Sunday: “I am surprised because you would have thought the pitch would be one of the priorities. It is a fantastic facility and everything is brand new, but the pitch is in bad state.”

Local football fans who caught the Juventus vs Singapore Selection “live” in the stadium and on television were equally appalled. TODAY reader Mohamad Farid Harunal Rashid said he came away disappointed from his experience at the Sports Hub.

“While the physical structure of the stadium was impressive, the pitch was quite clearly below par,” he said. “It was sandy with far too many barren patches, not at all like a turf maintained by a state-of-the art system at high cost, as has been widely reported.”

A “lacklustre” showing by the Singapore side and half-filled stadium — 27,338 spectators turned up for the game — also added to the disappointment, as Farid added: “Football games must be first and foremost about pitches and players that are up to the mark, and facilitating fan involvement in every way feasible.”

There are doubts now as to whether the pitch will be in top shape for November’s 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup, with Singapore hosting Group B here from Nov 23 to 29. Before that, an international football friendly between Brazil and Japan is scheduled for Oct 14, followed by the Mariah Carey and Jay Chou concerts on Oct 24 and Nov 8, and a rugby match between the Asia Pacific Dragons and Maori All Blacks on Nov 15.

Responding to queries, Gregory Gillin, senior director of Stadia, Singapore Sports Hub, said: “We note the feedback and agree there is room for improvement for the pitch. For Saturday’s game, the pitch was 100 per cent safe and provided a steady surface for the players.

“This was demonstrated during the training sessions and throughout the match by the players having stable conditions underfoot, which allowed them freedom of movement across the surface.

“As with any new stadium, we expect teething problems as we continue to ramp up operations, and are concurrently evaluating what additional measures we need to implement to achieve an elite playing surface that meets the needs of our multipurpose calendar.”