Friday, 5 March 2010

Greenland's first artificial pitch

An edited version of this feature appears in the latest issue of PanStadia magazine

The relentless growth of artificial sports surfaces has seen pitches established in just about every corner of the world – except one.

Greenland is the largest island in the world and one of the most sparsely populated places on earth yet more than 10 per cent of the 55,000 people that live there regularly play football despite obstacles few other players in the world could cope with.

The extreme climate means a season that only runs from May to September at best and when players can get outside and play, fixtures are generally played out sand pitches that mean tracksuit bottoms are essential and injuries from the hard surface proliferate.

The Greenland Football Association, the Grønlands Boldspil-Union (GBU), knew that an artificial pitch could transform how the game was played but finding the funds was the main problem.

A football championship was first staged in Greenland in 1958 and the GBU was set up in 1971 but the Greenlanders have slowly been moving towards greater political independence. In 1979, Greenland won home rule and, along with the Faroe Islands, now forms part of the Danish commonwealth.

As part of these wider moves towards greater autonomy, the Sports Confederation of Greenland cut ties with the Danish Sports Confederation. This meant that the GBU would stand alone from the Danish football association, the Dansk Boldspil-Union (DBU). Finding wider recognition with FIFA proved problematic, making development of the sport difficult but despite this, the GBU and agreed in 2006 that getting such a an artificial surface had to be a priority.

An artificial turf specialist from Denmark was invited over to Greenland and visited the island’s different towns to find a suitable venue. That in itself was no mean feat as Greenland has virtually no roads apart from a few kilometers in the capital, Nuuk. To get around the 2.2 million square kilometre island, which has a population of just 55,000, means trips by small plane or boat. Eventually, Qaqortoq was proposed as the most suitable venue.

The GBU worked with different civic groups on the plans and the DBU came on board with Poul Gilling, head of department for education and development, taking a keen interest in the project. Although the GBU is not affiliated to FIFA, Gilling saw a solution in the world body’s Goal Project, which has funded essential development projects across the globe.

FIFA had funded a Goal Project in French Guiana, which is an associate member of Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football but not affiliated to the world body. That grant was secured by the Fédération Française de Football, who applied on behalf of French Guiana, which is a French overseas department.

Greenland has more political autonomy than French Guiana but with the GBU unable to affiliate to FIFA, in 2005 a co-operation agreement was reached with the DBU to help the Greenlanders out with educating coaches, referees and organizers. When this agreement was renewed at the end of 2007, the GBU asked the DBU to support an application for Goal funding. Poul Gilling explains: “We decided to support them and a letter was sent to FIFA during the summer of 2008 signed by the [DBU] president Allan Hansen. FIFA decided to give the Danish FA money from the goal project and told us that they wanted us to tell the [GBU] that FIFA had supported the building of an artificial turf in Greenland. During a meeting with the Greenlandic FA at the end of 2008 we told them the news.”

The GBU’s president Lars Lundblad had the bulk of the funding that he needed for the project but more money was still needed. “The whole price for the artificial turf was about U$D 500,000 and FIFA paid U$D 400,000, explains Jens Tang Olesen, the manager of Greenland’s national team. “The rest was found locally in Qaqortoq. A group called Tapisali, who has been working with the plan for many years, collected about U$D 50,000.”

As FIFA was funding the project, the clients had to ask FIFA preferred suppliers to tender. Each of the bidders had to send a representative to Qaqortoq. The bidders were whittled down to two firms and Dutch supplier Edel Grass won out. Edel teamed up with native firm, Greenland Mining Services, and the local council, Kommune Kujalleq, to lay the surface with work starting in July. “Due to the climate it was important to be sure that the construction could handle a lot of snow, water and wind,” says the DBU’s Poul Gilling.

EDEL had worked on another FIFA sponsored project for the DBY for Brondby but for the company’s project manager Martin Høeg, the work in Qaqortoq was something really quite different. He explains: “Obviously, the Greenland weather conditions could potentially be quite a big challenge for this project. Even when most warm in July and August, the weather can suddenly, and without any warning, change for the worse.

Fortunately we got all thinkable support from the locals, including the local entrepreneur, who was doing the sub base and from the local representatives from the Greenland Football Association. Another big challenge unlike our traditional pitches [elsewhere] was the transport of grass and infill. Fortunately the professionals from Royal Arctic Line were very helpful in working out the most rational ways of getting our goods from different parts of Europe all the way to Qaqortoq.”

All the components for the project were shipped via Aalborg in Denmark to Qaqortoq, while EDEL sent out a team of four people led by Mr Høeg to work with the locals and the DBU persuaded Danish artificial turf expert Ejvind Naesborg to come out of retirement to act as their representative. “The good people of the Greenland FA were apparently able to light a spark in his mind, explaining about this exciting project in a place far, far away from his normal habitat,” explains Mr Høeg.

When the pitch was inaugurated on September 19 2009, crowds of people flocked to the rocks surrounding the turf to watch an unheralded club match (see photos).
Qaqortoq only has one club, K-33, with 150 children and 100 adults playing regularly in the town but around eight clubs and an estimated 400 children and 300 adults play in the wider South Greenland area, known as Kommune Kujalleq. As travel is so problematic in Greenland, a national championship is determined by local qualifiers with the winners of these regional series travelling to one destination for a play-off. When the championships are staged in remote towns like Uummannaq, participating can be a three-week commitment for players as travel to and from the finals can take a week for some sides and often involve boats and planes.

K-33 staged the championships in 1987, 1988, 1991, 1998 and most recently in 2003 and EDEL’s new surface will make Qaqortoq a popular venue for future championships once players and officials get a chance to experience what the new surface has to offer.

“When the football players and other people in Qaqortoq and South Greenland can see how wonderful it will be, many other places also will try to build artificial turf,” adds Jens Tang Olesen. “I think that it will be a kind of icebreaker, because it is the first in Greenland. Since 19 September, when the new turf in Qaqortoq was inaugurated the crime among the young people in Qaqortoq is going down. The turf will be very good for the football education in South Greenland – the players can now train and work more with their football technique and I think that the team-playing will be more possession than before, and the players can now tackle the opposition players without risk of getting hurt.”

Ironically, the only regular source of overseas competitive fixtures for Olesen’s team is the football tournament at the bi-annual Island Games, a sort of mini-Olympics for islands, where games are generally played on grass. Greenland played in every tournament since the Island Games’ inception in 1989 only to sit out the 2007 event due to lack of money. Greenland’s ladies went to Rhodes in 2008 instead but Olesen’s team returned for the last Island Games in the Finnish island of Åland in 2009 and should be in the Isle of Wight in 2011.

However, with Greenland’s first artificial turf finally in place, Olesen and the GBU are hopeful that more pitches will follow and are advancing plans for a tournament of their own. “The GBU hope that other towns will follow Qaqortoq,” explains Olesen. “The GBU try via newspapers and contact to the various agency and tell them how important this new artificial turf is for the football players in Greenland. The GBU hope that in 2012 there will be one or two new artificial turfs in other towns in Greenland, so that there can be arranged an international football tournament in Greenland, perhaps in Nuuk.”

For the DBU, there is also a larger goal. “With this project we hope a lot of children in Greenland will play a lot more football,” says Poul Gilling. “There are not many teams coming from Denmark to play in Greenland. With the new turf it might be possible that some teams will travel to Greenland to play.”

The subject of a television documentary by Greenlandic station KNW, few artificial surfaces are likely to be a transformative as the new pitch at Qaqortoq.

Project: artificial turf pitch
Location: Qaqortoq, southern Greenland
Pitch size: 35-m x 64-m
Cost: U$D 500,000
Clients: Grønlands Boldspil-Union/Dansk Boldspil-Union
DBU advisor: Ejvind Naesborg
Turf supplier: Edel Grass
Contractors: Greenland Mining Services/Kommune Kujalleq