Football: England go indoors to examine the grass-roots

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The Independent Online
WITH a neat sense of appropriateness, England are to wind up one of their worst seasons in memory in an overheated gasbag.

History will be made on Saturday, with their US Cup tie against Germany destined for the Trivial Pursuit quiz book as the first international to be played indoors, on the world's most expensive grass.

The Pontiac Silverdome, just outside Detroit, is the imposing venue for the final match in a tournament deemed to have served its purpose, which was to stimulate public interest in football in the run-up to next year's World Cup.

By Saturday, more than 250,000 spectators will have watched six friendly fixtures - the 54,118 who saw England draw with Brazil representing the largest audience for a sporting event in the United States this year.

That figure will be exceeded for England v Germany, with more than 50,000 tickets sold and the attendance likely to approach the Silverdome's near-80,000 capacity. The atmosphere will be hot and rowdy, in every sense. The roof on the giant inflatable bubble accentuates the noise and, in the absence of air-conditioning, the temperature can rise well above the 74 degrees which England found so oppressive in Washington at the weekend.

The novelty value of an indoor international is increased by the experimental surface which is due to stage four World Cup ties next year. Maintaining grass indoors, away from sunlight, is not easy, but the Americans - who else? - have done it.

Maintaining is the word, not growing. At vast expense, well in excess of pounds 1m, Dr John Rogers of Michigan State University, came up with a hardy blend of grasses (85 per cent Kentucky blue, 15 per cent rye) which was grown in southern California and transported across the country in four trucks.

On arrival, the portable pitch was transplanted into thousands of hexagonal six foot pods which locked together like a giant jigsaw to form a unique playing surface.

To promote growth, the pods are removed and taken outside, to the car park, after every match. It is a laborious, time-consuming process, but one which illustrates the lengths to which the Americans are prepared to go to make a success of their World Cup.

Jim Trekker, senior vice president of the organising committee, is confident that they are half-way there.

The US Cup had been 'an absolute smash success,' he said. 'The TV ratings for the tournament have been very encouraging, and we have had hundreds of American journalists, covering it, from start to finish. We have never had greater exposure for the game in this country that I can recall, and it is hard now for people not to know about the World Cup.

'Overwhelmingly, the American media have moved into a very positive mode about soccer.'

'If only we could say the same about you lot' muttered an overheated gasbag at the back.