— -- A Canadian human rights court has ordered FIFA, soccer's international governing body, to respond by next week to a gender discrimination claim brought by some the world's foremost female players, including American stars Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan.
The court's action could at last force FIFA to address the brewing controversy over its decision to stage the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada on artificial turf fields for the first time in history, despite vehement protests from the women who actually have to play on the fields.
"We know that men would never have the World Cup or any major tournament played on [turf]," Morgan told ABC News. "And we don't think it should be for the women's game either."
In a notice sent to FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ordered the organizations to respond by October 9 to the women's request for an expedited hearing and by early November on the substance of the claims.
"The court's decision to immediately put FIFA and Canadian soccer officials on notice that the players' suit may be fast-tracked signals how seriously it takes the matter," one of the players' attorneys, Hampton Dellinger, said today. "We look forward to our day in court coming quickly or, even better, to FIFA and CSA coming to the negotiating table."
For months, FIFA has remained largely silent on the issue, despite a very public campaign by the some of the most elite players in the world to negotiate a change to natural grass fields.
Several of the players have shared on social media pictures of grisly-looking scrapes and turf burns in an effort to ramp up the pressure on FIFA.
The movement has even garnered support from some prominent male athletes, including the NBA's Kobe Bryant and U.S. soccer star Tim Howard. Still, FIFA says that it has no alternate plan.
"I don’t think FIFA really cares, I really don’t," said Julie Foudy, the former captain of the U.S. women's national team, who is now an analyst for ABC/ESPN. "I don’t really think they care about negative publicity. I think they’re like, ‘Whatever. Deal with it, women.’"
After a September deadline set by the players passed with no response from FIFA, the women followed through on their threats to seek a legal remedy. They sued FIFA and the CSA this week in Toronto, arguing that the decision to play on artificial turf amounted to illegal gender discrimination under Canadian human rights law.
Morgan and Wambach were joined in the legal action by some of the biggest names in women's soccer, including U.S. midfielder Heather O'Reilly, Spanish star Verónica Boquete and German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, the reigning FIFA Women's Player of the Year.
In its court filings, the group argues that playing on turf heightens the risks of serious injuries, fundamentally alters the game and devalues the women's dignity "as of a result of requiring them to play on a second-class surface" before a global audience.
"I really don’t think you will ever see a flying header like [Robin] van Persie with a turf field," Morgan said, referring to the Dutch star's spectacular diving goal at the men's World Cup this past summer in Brazil. "I myself, subconsciously, I don’t tackle on turf, I don’t go to the ground as often on turf because you get that sort of rug burn. Your legs bleed if you go on the ground."
In a response to an email inquiry about the lawsuit, a FIFA spokesman said the organization was not yet prepared to respond.
"While we are aware of the recent media reports, at the time of writing we have not been officially contacted on the matter," the spokesman wrote, "and therefore we are not in a position to comment."
The Canadian Soccer Association declined an interview request, telling ABC News in a statement that its "lawyers will be reviewing any and all applications or information related to this. We will refrain from any comment until there has been a thorough review."
The players are seeking an order from the human rights court that would force FIFA and the CSA to move the matches to alternate venues or to install grass fields over the turf in the six stadiums that will host World Cup matches.
"They should lay sod down. They should have done that from the beginning," said Foudy. "[FIFA] should have said to Canada -– thank you for the bid, we accept it. Now let’s create a plan where we can make this work."
Trey Rogers, a turf specialist at Michigan State University who was contracted by FIFA to install a modular grass field indoors at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan for the 1994 World Cup, is now consulting with the attorneys for the women. He estimates it would cost between $500,000 and $750,000 per stadium to make the switch to natural grass if the women prevail in their lawsuit.
"It will take a coordinated effort," Rogers told ABC News. "It will take putting the right people in place and it will take some money. But it is not unprecedented nor is it impossible."
The Women's World Cup is scheduled to begin next year on June 6. The final will be held July 5 at Vancouver's BC Place.
The German goalkeeper Angerer has called the playing surface there embarrassing and has likened its turf to concrete.
"The risk to get injured is very, very high there," she said this week on a conference call arranged by the group's attorneys. "We are not happy with this."