Altitude problem

Playing football 2,500 metres above sea level can be a shock to the system if you’re not used to it. But, argues Chris Taylor, FIFA’s ban on internationals is a victory for double standards and the major powers

You would think that FIFA’s medical department would have better things to do. Player burn-out, drug-taking, even dangerous play – all are areas where world football’s doctors might have something useful to chip in. Instead, they have provided the justification for FIFA’s executive committee to announce on May 27 that henceforward all international football above an altitude of 2,500 metres would be banned.

The FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, said: “I know there will be complaints about this, especially from South America, but we have to think of the health of the players first. It also leads to a distortion of the competition if matches are played at such a level.”

At first sight, perhaps, this sounds not unreasonable. Anyone who has kicked a ball about at altitude knows that you can quickly become short of breath. Some people feel sick the moment they get off the plane.

But despite this, football has been played at altitudes much greater than 2,500m for more than a century. The only cities affected by the new limit that regularly play host to international matches are La Paz (3,600m) in Bolivia and Quito (3,000m) in Ecuador. (Bogotá also misses the cut, but Colombia tend to play in the Caribbean port of Barranquilla.) FIFA has 207 members, so you can see why these Andean countries might feel singled out. It’s like Rafa Benítez telling Peter Crouch that it’s nothing personal but he’s only picking players under 6ft 6in.

In fact, this story goes back 14 years to when Bolivia beat Brazil 2-0 in La Paz. It was a victory that helped the Bolivians qualify for USA 94, but perhaps of more significance was that it was Brazil’s first ever defeat in World Cup qualification. It turned the inconvenience of playing at altitude for visiting teams into a major political issue. Brazil protested at the unsuitability of the venue and, with the other big South American nations, mounted a campaign to ban football at altitude (initially over 3,000m). That did not immediately bear fruit but now, after further defeats in the Andean highlands for Argentina and Brazil, it has.

Brazil and Argentina have seats on FIFA’s executive committee (Argentina’s Julio Grondona is its senior vice-president) and on the medical committee. Neither Bolivia, Ecuador, nor any other ­high‑altitude ­association is represented on either.

It would be interesting to know how FIFA’s medical department hit upon the figure of 2,500m. Perhaps that is the altitude at which a player’s health becomes imperilled, but it also neatly excludes little Bolivia while sparing the politically powerful Mexico: the Azteca Stadium, which has twice hosted World Cup finals, is 2,200m above sea level. Also, while banning international matches on health grounds, FIFA appear indifferent to the health of players in domestic competition. Bolivia is split between the Andean high plains and the lowlands, with clubs such as Bolívar and The Strongest in La Paz (Royal Oruro play at 4,000m), while Blooming and Oriente Petrolero play close to sea level in Santa Cruz. That means that every week players are making journeys of two miles vertically to complete ­fixtures. What about them?

Why should it stop there? Coming down from the Andes to play in the sweltering tropical heat of, say, Recife in Brazil is no picnic, either. And after all, it gets very cold in Moscow – should players be exposed to the risk? Manchester, I understand, can be quite rainy.

“This is not only a ban on Bolivia, it’s a ban on the universality of sport,” said President Evo Morales after an emergency meeting of his cabinet the day after the decision. “We cannot allow discrimination in football, we cannot allow… exclusion in the world of sport.” He vowed to send an envoy to Switzerland to argue his country’s case.

Yes, for someone from a low altitude playing at above 2,500m is difficult, but so what? Despite La Paz not getting any lower, Bolivia have failed to qualify for the last three World Cups, so perhaps the solution to the “altitude problem” lies on the field of play, not in the committee room. FIFA’s medical department is simply providing a fig leaf for a political decision of the most craven nature: a case of the big boys ­ganging up on the little guys.

From WSC 245 July 2007

Comments (1)
Comment by The Exploding Vole 2009-04-02 16:40:24