Debate over the impact of smaller pitches as Copa America nears its climax

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The ongoing Copa America in the United States has sparked a heated debate among players, coaches and fans, centred on the dimensions of the pitches used in the tournament. Unlike the standard FIFA-recommended measurements of 105 metres in length and 68 metres in width, the pitches at 10 of the 14 stadiums hosting Copa America matches are smaller, measuring 100 meters by 64 meters. This is the result of most of them primarily being used for National Football League (NFL) games. The American Football playing surface is exactly 100 metres long. 

This seemingly minor difference has had a significant impact on the dynamics of the games played so far. For star players like Lionel Messi and Ángel Di María of Argentina, and even Emiliano Martínez in goal, the condensed playing area has posed challenges. Messi, known for his precise dribbling and astute playmaking, expressed dissatisfaction with the pitch conditions, describing them as “disastrous”. The narrower width and shorter length have forced teams to adapt their strategies, favouring quicker transitions and more direct playstyles.

Brazil’s head coach Dorival Júnior highlighted the tactical implications after a match against Costa Rica, emphasising how the reduced pitch size intensified the defensive pressure and facilitated faster counter-attacks. This adjustment has particularly favoured teams strong in quick transitions and high pressing, altering the traditional flow of the game.

Criticism has not been limited to gameplay alone. The quality of the pitches themselves has also come under scrutiny. Lionel Scaloni, manager of Argentina, criticised the surface at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, citing its unsuitability for top-level players. Similar complaints have been raised by Chile and Peru about the conditions in Dallas, with Peru’s coach attributing an injury to the poor quality of the grass.

Looking ahead, concerns about pitch dimensions are set to persist as the United States prepares to host major international tournaments like the 2025 Club World Cup and the 2026 World Cup. FIFA regulations stipulate that all matches in the 2026 World Cup must adhere strictly to the 105×68 metre standard, which demands extensive renovations in some stadiums. Plans to widen fields by removing seats, such as at MetLife Stadium, highlights the financial and logistical challenges involved in meeting these requirements.

As the Copa America unfolds amidst debates over pitch dimensions and playing conditions, it serves as a prelude to larger discussions about the future of football in the United States. While some view it as much ado about nothing, with the smaller pitches intensifying the game’s pace and excitement, others argue that the unsatisfactory playing surfaces take away from the beauty and finesse traditionally associated with top-level football.