FIFA's altitude ban may be its most hypocritical move
Posted: Tuesday March 18, 2008 11:53AM; Updated: Tuesday March 18, 2008 12:27PM
FIFA's ruling on soccer at high altitudes threatens to throw the South American game into turmoil.
The world governing body has decided that an adaptation period of three days is necessary before an official international match can take place at 8,200 feet above sea level. At 9,000 feet, the period is extended to one week, and soccer at or above 9,800 feet is all but ruled out with the stipulation of a minimum period of two weeks.
The measure affects Colombia, which is staging its home games at Bogotá (8,500 feet); Ecuador, which uses Quito (9,200); and especially Bolivia, whose base is La Paz, nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. (For some perspective, keep in mind that Denver's elevation is 5,280 feet.)
The immediate problem is that this measure has been announced with a tournament already underway. Four of the 18 rounds of South America's 2010 World Cup qualifiers have been completed. If, from now on, visiting countries don't have to climb up the Andes to Bogotá, Quito and La Paz, those who have already done so are left at a clear disadvantage. The integrity of the competition has been affected.
But it's the long-term ramifications that are especially problematic. This measure will be seen as a arbitrary act of discrimination which hits a region that has already had way more than its fair share of misfortune.
There's no doubt that playing at high altitudes offers an advantage for the home team playing against opponents who are unaccustomed to the conditions. The lack of oxygen in the air causes the un-acclimatized player to lose some of his athletic capacity.
But how much home advantage is too much? Russia, for example, qualified for the finals of Euro '08. Visitors to Moscow had to cope with not only the excesses of the Russian winter, but also a plastic pitch. And yet this is considered acceptable. The restrictions on altitude appear to have been imposed in isolation without looking at the issue in the context of other extreme conditions.
This becomes especially apparent when taking into account the fact that the restrictions on altitude have been brought into effect based on health risks to the players. This is all very well, but doctors and physical-preparation specialists seem largely to agree that playing soccer in extreme heat offers a greater risk than altitude -- and this is a condition prevalent in South America.
If banned from playing in Bogotá, for example, Colombia is likely to switch to Barranquilla, the sweltering Caribbean port where conditions could well be considered more dangerous. So how have the players been protected?
But, if absolutely necessary, the national teams can move their base. Colombia can play in Barranquilla or elsewhere, Ecuador can use Guayaquil, Bolivia can come down the Andes to Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
But what about the clubs based in the mountain regions? Should their locations force them to be excluded from international competitions? This surely infringes the concept of the universality of soccer, and also swims against the prevailing tide of South American integration.