A ground-breaking night in Helsinki

Helsinki’s Finnair stadium – recently fitted with a state-of-the-art, artificial pitch , made its maiden voyage into the waters of competitive football on 15 May 2003 when HJK Helsinki and FC Jokerit kicked off the Finnish first division (Veikkausliiga) campaign with a 1-1 draw. The impressive ground will become the first with an artificial pitch to host a FIFA final tournament, as it is slated to stage no less than ten matches at this summer’s FIFA U-17 World Championship Finland 2003.

While neither of the capital sides’ players seemed to struggle with the new surface, it was surely no one’s first time on an “unnatural” pitch, as Finland’s Nordic climes and harsh winters make manicured natural grass rather problematic.

An all-even first affair at Finnair
Despite both goals coming from the penalty spot, free-flowing football ruled the derby day.

Left back Liro Aalto of HJK took a realist’s perspective on the new surface: “Circumstances make artificial turf a needed option in Finland.” Jokerit midfielder Petri Helin echoed his counterpart’s sentiment: “Our situation in Scandinavia makes artificial turf quite necessary.” P>Although natural grass will always be the footballer’s favourite, no injuries were reported following the match.

Helsinki’s date with history
Finland 2003 tournament director and member of the Local Organising Committee (LOC), Lennart Wangel, recently sat down with FIFA.com to discuss the bounding improvements made in the area of artificial turf. And the man with the plan was not shy with his opinions. “The technology (for artificial pitches) has come so far,” said Wangel. “It is unbelievable.”

And on 30 August 2003, the Helsinki ground – which during the U-17 competition will go by its old name, the Töölö stadium – will become the first of its kind to host a FIFA Final.

FIFA looks to even the field
Looking to create a competitive environment in the corners of Planet Football where natural grass represents a substantial logistical problem, football’s world governing body has taken steps to help even the playing field. By launching its Quality Concept for Artificial Turf in 2001, FIFA took steps toward meeting demands for a universally accepted standard for artificial pitches. Another milestone was reached on 28 February 2002, with the introduction of a certification and licence programme that led to a FIFA Recommended status, and a global quality standard.

Nearly 40 stadiums around the world now bear the FIFA Recommended label, allowing them to host official FIFA tournaments.

A well-timed turf transplant
While the installation team was feverishly tearing up the old grass, 28 trucks moved gigantic 74-metre strips of turf towards Helsinki. The new “grass”, Mondoturf Ecofill 60 II NST, was en route from Italy and manufacturer Mondo S.P.A. And time was of the essence, as only eight days remained to put the finishing touches to the pitch before the Helsinki derby.

ut according to Jarmo Koskinen, who oversaw the massive installation project along with FIFA consultant Markus Keller, everything went according to plan.

“We were under a very tight schedule with the match coming up,” said Koskinen. “But the weather was generally cooperative.”

Despite the changes, the grounds crew at the Finnair Stadium will not see their jobs go the way of the old grass. With a 60mm layer of turf and rubberised filling, a 20mm layer of fine gravel and two more larger layers of gravel and compacted soil sitting atop an underground, heating system the new surface will need nearly as much maintenance as the lush, green grass once did.

“The grounds crew will still be with us here at Finnair,” remarked Koskinen. “Though I think, especially with the weather in Finland, their jobs just got a little easier!”