Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Are FIFA high as a kite?

Soccer news from Soccerphile.com.
The sport's world governing body certainly put the cat amongst the South American pigeons last week when it announced that no more games would be played at altitude, for health and safety reasons.

This curious and unexpected directive seemed to me at first to have been an arbitrary blow against Ecuador and Bolivia, whose national teams play internationals in their high-altitude capitals.

Ecuador qualified for the 2006 World Cup thanks to an unbeaten home record in Quito (elevation 2,800 metres) which included the scalps of traditional South American superpowers Brazil and Argentina.

However, the theory that altitude equals advantage is unproven when Bolivia, who play their games at La Paz (3,600m), finished bottom of the pile.

FIFA’s limit of 2,500m for football matches would also rule Bogota out of future games, although Colombia tends to eschew their capital in favour of the large Estadio Metropolitano in Baranquilla, which stands a lofty six metres above sea level.

Suspicious eyes have turned towards the influence in CONMEBOL wielded by Brazil, the largest country in the continent, synonym for football greatness, home of former FIFA President Joao Havelange and the sole candidate from the region for the 2018 World Cup.

Players from Rio club Flamengo needed oxygen earlier this year after a Copa Libertadores match at 4,000m high Real Potosi in Bolivia, which may have hastened FIFA’s decision.

Yet the sele├žao’s concern at Peru’s intention to host future qualifiers in high in the sky Cusco (3,500m) appears alarmist. Peru finished just above cellar-dwellers Bolivia in the ten-nation race for 2006.

While high-altitude soccer undoubtedly is a challenge for those unaccustomed to it, the wisdom of FIFA’s edict remains highly questionable.

Playing in intense heat is probably of more immediate worry than exercising in thin air, medically speaking, as some of the affected countries hope to prove with a team of doctors in their forthcoming appeals.

FIFA had no problem in 1994 when scheduling lunchtime kick-offs for the World Cup finals in extreme heat and humidity, in order to satisfy the demands of European television and sponsors, a decision which placed unreasonable physical demands on the players, many of whom struggled in the sweltering conditions.

In addition, the news that high altitude prohibits safe sporting activity must come as news to the three million-odd inhabitants of the above cities and their soccer heritage, including a number of major clubs, which goes back decades.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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