Out of thin air | Where llamas and footballers prosper, FIFA fears to tread

At 68.1º longitude and 16.5º latitude, Estádio Hernando Siles de la Ciudad de La Paz sits approximately 3,636m (11,929 ft.) above sea level.

Yo nací­ entre las montaí±as.
Mi pueblo en Suiza está frente a los cerros más altos de Europa.
Por eso la altura no me da miedo.

I was born in the mountains.
My hometown in Switzerland sits across from the highest mountains in Europe.
For that reason, I am not afraid of the altitude.

Joseph Blatter, FIFA president, 11 February 2000

La Paz, Bolivia | The above inscription, situated on exterior walls at Estádio Hernando Siles de la Ciudad de La Paz, obviously reflects a different period in the FIFA boss’s thinking on high-altitude football.

On May 27, FIFA’s executive committee announced the ban on competitive international matches 2,500m above sea level. Typically, the stroke came with little explanation, medical or otherwise. FIFA’s official account of the meeting—held in advance of the 57th FIFA Congress, at which the world governing body announced its new slogan, “For the Game. For the World.â„¢”—sandwiches the judgment between news of a benefit match for Nelson Mandela and praise for its “Win in Africa with Africa” initiative (“Focus on 57th FIFA Congress,” May 27).

La Razón of La Paz, one of the newspapers organizing the “Bolivia Unida y Con Altura” signature protest, went above the fold with the FIFA story on May 28.

In their attempt to raise 1 million signatures in opposition to the FIFA decision, Bolivian media organizations remind Blatter of his earlier remarks “at a time when there was constant debate regarding matches at high altitude” (Eduardo Avila, “A Country Unites behind FIFA Ban on Stadiums at High Altitudes,” Global Voices, May 31). In the final salvo of a 10-point manifesto, the ad hoc “Bolivia Unida y Con Altura” movement quotes the FIFA boss, having made clear the FIFA principles being overturned by the arbitrary decision—that football forms part of “universal culture,” uniting people as sisters and brothers, whatever their altitudinal relationship to the prevailing seascape.

“Bolivians are a poor people, we play football with humility, but we are dignified and we have a national character such that we will defend our rights when we are not at fault,” states the manifesto in its peroration. The letter may be signed online. (An independent weblog, “Futbol de altura,” has launched to follow breaking news and to link to videos of historic Bolivian matches.)

FIFA did not present details of its scientific findings or a list of sources consulted, forcing the conclusion that reasons for the high-altitude ban are political rather than substantive. If desired, the organizing body could call on the medical assessment and research center under its auspices. The center, for example, was recently charged with producing a pan-ethnic study on testosterone levels. Or, FIFA decision-makers could have popped into the meditation center at its freshly unveiled $196 million Zurich headquarters to think more clearly about what they were doing. The facility, fronted in glass, will “allow light to shine through the building and create the transparency we all stand for,” said Blatter, without irony.

The most complete FIFA response to the demonstrations and protests from the Andean countries—Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico (not to mention Nepal) are also affected by the high-altitude ban—was to BBC’s World Football, broadcast Jun 9 (available online until Jun 16).

Playing football above 2,500m can seriously affect a player’s health due to high-altitude sickness, and it decreases a player’s performance by up to 30 percent if they are not allowed to acclimatise beforehand. … The realities of the international match calendar are such that it is generally not possible to release the players with sufficient time for them to get acclimatised, especially for the qualifiers of the FIFA World Cupâ„¢. Therefore, under those circumstances, playing at high altitude does not reflect the Fair Play principles of competition and respect for the opponent.

It would be difficult to determine how the altitude of stadiums such as El Campí­n (Bogotá, 2,556m), Olí­mpico Atahualpa (Quito, 2,811m), Carcilasco de la Vega (“Inca,” Cuzco, Peru, 3,248m), Municipal de Calama (Calama, Chile, 3,000m) or Nemesio Dí­ez (Toluca, Mexico, 2,680m) affects the performance of visiting teams, since the home team maintains a statistical advantage regardless of where matches are played. Lack of acclimatization—to unfamiliar food, to extreme weather and to rude supporters playing oompah music outside the team hotel at 0200—represents part of the inherent challenge of international football. It is why important competitions are often contested on a home-and-home basis, with the winner decided on aggregate, or in a league format in which teams must be tested on the road but are allowed to host games on familiar ground in equal measure. Doesn’t FIFA know about this?

Authorities acknowledge that oxygen deficiency, or hypoxia, results at high altitudes, affecting athletic performance while not necessarily causing health hazards. The British medical journal Lancet, in a thoroughgoing 2003 survey of research, begins its account of high-altitude sickness by recognizing the human body’s adaptability at elevation. Twenty-nine years before FIFA’s executive decision in late May, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became the first to scale Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen, “once thought to be beyond human capabilities. The fact that these targets were achieved, and have been repeated many times since, is a testimony to the ability of human beings, with the right preparation, to tolerate hypoxia.” The Lancet article affirms the need to study the influence of age, sex and exercise on the condition and whether there might be genetic determinants.

Fifteen doctors enlisted by South American confederation CONMEBOL themselves could not come to a unified position at a meeting on Jun 14, nor could they agree which doctors should constitute the panel. Specialists from Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador claim they were expelled (“Panel of South American Sports Doctors Divided on High-Altitude Soccer Ban,” AP, Jun 14), while one doctor said that FIFA had pushed the altitude limit to 3,000m, which would restore Quito’s and Bogotá’s eligibility.

FIFA denied the story and reaffirmed its decision. Confusion reigns.

On Jun 12, Morales scheduled his second high-altitude game in two weeks, this match versus mountaineers on the slightly tilted face of Mount Sajama (6,000m), a dormant volcano. The match lasted 15 minutes. Players got tired chasing the ball down the slope. (Dado Galdieri | AP).

One certainty is the fresh jolt of solidarity that FIFA’s action has given Bolivian society, divided over President Evo Morales and his championing of indigenous rights, nationalizing of key industries and flirtations with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Morales has proclaimed that “he who wins at high altitude, stands tall” and has convened an Andean coalition to counter the Zurich maneuverings. Former president Carlos Mesa extols Morales’s credentials as an indigenous Aymara and as one raised at high altitude, herding llamas, farming, performing odd jobs and, at 14, organizing his own football team (“El argumento médico está estadí­sticamente desbaratado,” La Prensa, May 28). (See Susan Ellison, “Luz y verdad,” 4 May 05, for more on the Aymara.)

The South American split, between the Andes and the low-lying giants Argentina and Brazil, is said to have origins in the recent politicking of Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo. The red-and-black (rojinegra) quickly were identified as the villians within the Bolivian press. Flamengo vice president Kléber Leite was quoted thanking Confederação Brasileira de Futebol (CBF) for helping to bring about the new prohibition (“Brazil está bajo sospecha por el veto de la FIFA a la altura,” La Razón, May 29), motivated by Flamengo’s still-clear recollection of a Feb 14 draw away to Bolivian side Real Potosí­ in Copa Libertadores. The game took place at nearly 4,000m, and Flamengo players required oxygen treatments.

Morales and other Bolivian politicians and football authorities have cast the dispute in terms of human rights and the game’s universality. “There are people who live, who work and who have family in places of high elevation, who have a right to play football,” Jorge Pacheco, president of The Strongest, told El Diario of La Paz.

In contrast to the underhanded dealings abroad—La Prensa, another La Paz daily, confirmed May 29 that FIFA based its decision on a verbal recommendation of its medical committee, not on written findings—Bolivia’s football infrastructure points to its own reports from the mid- to late 1990s when concerns were raised about high-altitude competition. In particular, South American clubs objected following the qualifying sequence for the 1994 World Cup finals in the USA. Instead of a continent-wide qualifying format, Bolivia advanced to the finals stage from a group that also included Ecuador and Brazil. It was Bolivia’s only qualification in its history.

Former president Mesa authored a study in 1996 that set out with statistics and medical evidence the country’s case for the safety of high-altitude football. He says that the data, showing the absence of high-altitude sickness among both low-lying and Andean clubs in the time that the Bolivian game has been fully professional (since 1977), are still relevant to the present. He also issues a plea for the current government to treat the FIFA stricture as a critical priority, uniting all segments of the population in opposition:

International games involving the national team, games in the Copa Libertadores, in the Copa Sudamericana. Of what are we talking! The international impact is widespread. To eliminate more than 70 percent of the international stadiums in a country, as is the case in Bolivia, seems to me very grave. For a strategic reason, and here I am following the federation president and the technical director of the national side, there is justification for retaining La Paz as a setting for qualifying matches, and in the experience that I had in 1996 and 2000 we received the solidarity of the entire country. I assume that this is a national defense.


  • Morales, in reaction to reports that FIFA would require an adaptation period of two weeks at matches above 3,000m, said on 14 Jan 08 that the governing body had devised a “way of cutting up the world … a death sentence for the universality of football.” FIFA denied that it had decided on acclimatization periods, which Bolivian Football Federation president Carlos Chavez said would be three days above 2,500m and one week above 2,750m.
  • Patrick McSharry of Oxford University, analyzing scores from 1,460 international matches played at different altitudes in South America, concludes that differences in altitude do produce advantages for the acclimatized team (“High-Altitude Football Teams Have Big Advantage over Opponents,” AFP, Dec 21). But McSharry, a mathematician, looks at statistical evidence only, not whether high-altitude football entails a health risk.

    It is also unclear how much of the advantage of high altitude accrues simply to playing at home, in front of supporters, avoiding the inconvenience of travel and reaping a possible edge from referees’ decisions. The research—published in the British Medical Journal (“Effect of Altitude on Physiological Performance: A Statistical Analysis Using Results of International Football Games,” Dec 22)—does state that, for two teams from the same altitude, the probability of the home team winning is .537.

    “This rises to 0.825 for an altitude difference of 3,695m (such as high altitude Bolivia versus a sea level opponent Brazil) and falls to 0.213 when the altitude difference is -3,695m (Brazil versus Bolivia)” (“High Altitude Soccer Teams Have Significant Advantage Over Lowland Teams,” Science Daily, Dec 21).

  • FIFA’s Executive Committee, meeting during the FIFA Club World Cup in December, tweaked the high-altitude restrictions yet again. The body will ban FIFA-sanctioned matches above 2,750m (9,022 ft) “without acclimatization.” Quito and La Paz sit above this limit, but Blatter earlier had negotiated an exception for La Paz with Bolivia’s president Evo Morales. Before the resumption of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers in Jun 08, Blatter said that “we will have time to work out the exact application of this decision.”
  • Members of the diplomatic community in Washington join in condemning the contemplated FIFA action. Said Manuel Talavera, deputy chief of mission at the Peruvian Embassy, “Cuzco is a city where one of the world’s largest empires unfolded. … Human development [in high altitudes] is super-proven” (Mariana Minaya, “Soccer Fans Outraged at Ban Affecting High-Altitude Stadiums,” Washington Post, Jul 23).

    “It’s condemning a country to keep levels of marginality,” said Oswaldo Cuevas Gaete, general consul of Bolivia. “It stigmatizes a country as unfit for life—because soccer is life.”

  • Human struggles with high altitude have been recorded at least since the 16th-century ventures of Spanish Jesuit missionary José de Acosta (Elena Conis, “Beware the Thin Air,” Los Angeles Times, Jul 9). His traveling party and pack animals experienced shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, confusion and fatigue while traversing Andean country en route to Lima. Wrote Acosta, “the air was “not proportionate to the human respiratory system.”

    Experiments by French physician Paul Bert and Mexican physiologist Daniel Vergara Lope helped decipher the science behind the malady. Lope’s work demonstrated how the body acclimatizes to “thin air.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. Brian says:

    I think it’s interesting that Ecuador and Bolivia have been part of FIFA and thus playing international matches at altitude since the 1920s. Yet after 80 years, suddenly it’s decided that this is unhealthy. Or is it because Argentina and Brazil recently lost in the Andes? Hmm …

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