The Globo network in February reports on Flamengo’s visit to Real Potosí in Copa Libertadores, a 2–2 draw. Toward the end of the report, Flamengo players are seen receiving oxygen and collapsing from the strains of high altitude. Potosí, Bolivia, is 4,070m, or 2½ miles, above sea level.
Zurich, Switzerland | Is it safe to play football on the Andean altiplano or the Tibetan plateau? FIFA has not decided yet, but it continues to modify its judgment, originally decreed in May, that FIFA competitions shall not be staged above 2,500m (see Jun 15).
On Jun 27, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said medical consultations had influenced the governing body’s executive committee in raising the limit to 3,000m, thus excluding Bogotá, Quito and portions of Mexico from the high-altitude ban. In a convoluted statement at a Zurich press conference—see podcast below—Blatter said FIFA would only intervene in World Cup qualifiers. Qualifying in South America begins in September, by which time, Blatter said on Jul 5, the “topic … must be resolved in a very logical way.”
“We do not want to keep people from playing football,” Blatter has said on several occasions, making one wonder why FIFA has tried to devise a solution to a problem that does not exist. At the same Jun 27 press briefing at which he proposed a FIFA-sponsored conference in late October to consider scientific evidence on high-altitude sport—a conference now seemingly on the back burner—Blatter acknowledged that “this is not a scientific or medical decision, it is a sports/political decision.”
Morales and Blatter meet for a low-key, media-friendly kickabout on Jun 28 in Zurich. Both appear to violate Law 4 governing players’ equipment. (Andreas Meier | Reuters)
The political aspects triumphed the following day when Bolivian president Evo Morales jetted from Caracas, Venezuela, where he had been attending opening ceremonies of Copa América, to meet privately with Blatter at FIFA headquarters. Afterward, Morales appeared to have won a concession allowing FIFA matches to be played in La Paz. “The winner is our country, the winner is La Paz,” Bolivian soccer chief Carlos Chavez exulted. The La Paz exception was made explicit on Jul 6.
As part of our third podcast, native Bolivian and Global Voices regional editor Eduardo Ávila comments on Morales’s unaffected passion for the sport. Ávila recalls attending a barbeque when Morales was campaigning for the presidency. “He was a different person on the football field,” Ávila says. Morales picks out the number 10 jersey, likes to score and frequently provides the winning goal in his matches, whether by accident or design. “That’s one of his signatures. He wants to play football against journalists, play against ex–football players, play against kids from the street. That’s sort of a uniter.”
Whether the country is fully united by Morales’s lobbying on football remains in question. The nation, as Ávila notes, is divided ethnically among mestizo and the various indigenous communities (Aymara, Quechua, Guaraní) despite the rallying cry from the 1952 revolution, “Somos todos bolivianos” (see Andrew Canessa, “Reproducing Racism: Schooling and Race in Highland Bolivia,” Race, Ethnicity, and Education 7 [Jul 04]: 185–204). Morales himself is Aymara and cherishes his highland roots, although Canessa’s article on schooling in highland communities points to the gradual loss of Andean traditions due in part to a classroom quest for uniformity in thought and language. “The mountain spirits have left us,” mourns one young woman.
From the perspective of science, whether Bolivians maintain a physical advantage over opponents in competitive football at altitude is difficult to establish with certainty. Ávila posits that the benefit is more psychological. Bolivian players based abroad themselves must make the physical readjustment when playing in high-altitude games. Dwellers at high altitude, according to U.S. Olympic Committee physiologist Jay Kearney (see Mark Zeigler, “Altitude Sickness,” San Diego Union-Tribune, Jul 4), face the reverse challenge of acclimatizing to venues at sea level.
Nevertheless, Estádio Hernando Siles in La Paz, at 3,636m, is known as El Nido del Condor (The Condor’s Nest) to accentuate the air of intimidation. And in the course of 11,000 years of human habitation in the high Andes, scientists suggest that native dwellers have developed higher concentrations of hemoglobin in the blood (Mark S. Aldenderfer, “Moving Up in the World,” American Scientist 91 [Nov-Dec 03]: 542–49). Humans have evolved at low altitudes for the most part, making high-altitude life both a physiological and cultural adjustment.
To live permanently and thrive at high elevation, a person must have two things: a set of physiological adaptations to cope with the reduced availability of oxygen and a suite of cultural adaptations to cope with the harsh environment. These include, at a minimum, fire, effective clothing and a reliable set of tools for eking out a living. Hunting and gathering people, who were the first inhabitants of the high plateaus, also had to work out patterns of seasonal movement that minimized exposure to environmental hazards while simultaneously providing them with sufficient calories. (544)
Whether the cultural evolution encompasses an advanced capacity for scoring goals is another question.
- FIFA on 15 Mar 08 affirmed its revised policy toward high-altitude football, recommending that club teams and competitions such as Copa Libertadores follow the guidelines as well. These guidelines require a week’s adjustment at elevations above 2,750m (9,000ft) or two weeks above 3,000m (9,800ft), effectively ruling out games in Quito and La Paz. Three days’ acclimatization are required above 8,200ft.
Diego Maradona numbered among those striking out at the restriction. In a charity exhibition with Morales, Maradona, 47, said, “I speak for all of Argentina when I say that we do not fear the altitude. All of us have to play where were we were born, my brothers and sisters. Not even God can ban that—much less [Joseph] Blatter.”
SI.com columnist Tim Vickery says that mountain-based teams could be the most severely affected (“High Anxiety: FIFA’s Altitude Ban May Be Its Most Hypocritical Move,” Mar 18):
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.
- 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 it was unclear whether Blatter’s earlier agreement with Morales would remain in force. 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.”
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