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Thursday, 15 January 2009

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Just as you were ready to trek up the Inca trail to Machu Picchu to see Peru in a World Cup qualifier, along comes Sepp Blatter and his FIFA cronies prohibiting all international games above 2,500 metres (8,200 feet), because it is dangerous for players and gives an unfair home advantage.

As you would expect, the decision has ruffled some feathers amongst the various Andean nations, where World Cup qualifiers are routinely played at high altitude. The question is though - How and why have FIFA come to this decision?

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 the distortion of the competition if matches are played at such a level.

There is no doubt that playing at high altitude represents an enormous challenge to the modern day footballer, who is not acclimatised to playing at great altitudes, where the air is much thinner. Anyone who is not acclimatised, and has experienced high altitude will know that you can quickly become short of breath. Some of you will also know that you can feel sick the moment you step of the plane, so you understand where Sepp Blatter is coming from (and that his statement does not sound unreasonable).

But despite this, football has been played at high altitude (by some Andean countries) for more than a century, so why the sudden change?

FIFA has said that it ordered the ban on medical advice, and to end what it classes as the unfair advantage that teams from high altitude regions have when playing visitors from low-lying areas. A quick glance at the home and away records of Bolivia and Ecuador (whos national stadiums are in La Paz 3,600 metres, and Quito 2,800 metres respectively above seas level), will quickly back FIFAs argument.

Although experts from the Andes (in turn) have dismissed FIFAs health concerns, stating that it has provided no concrete evidence that players are at risk playing at high altitude. Admittedly FIFAs health concerns seem rather flawed at this current stage. If they argue that playing at altitude could be dangerous for your health, what about matches which are played in extreme heat (in the tropics of Rio de Janiero in Brazil), or extreme cold (in the freezing winters of Moscow in Russia)?

The ban also appears to apply not only to games involving national teams, but also to international club competitions. What do FIFA expect clubs based in the mountain cities to do? Is it easy for Ecuador to cease playing in Quito, and Bolivia to stop playing in La Paz (as national teams have the luxury of moving venues), but what do the hundreds of domestic club sides do when competing in international club competitions?

To assume that high altitude can solely play a major role in a football game is wrong; otherwise Andean countries like Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia would always be the champions of competitions such as the Copa Libertadores, and always qualify for the World Cup. In fact only two winners hailing from those countries (Atletico Nacional in 1989, and Once Caldas in 2004) have actually lifted the Copa Libertadores since it started in 1960. It is also worthwhile noting that Peru have also failed to qualify for any subsequent World Cups since 1982, Bolivia since 1994, and Columbia since 1998.

Argentina and Brazil have had major victories in these countries as well, so there is no truth to these accusations; in fact Brazil only lost their first ever World Cup qualifier in 1994 and that was against the Bolivians 2-0 in La Paz (so they managed countless victories at altitude prior to that result).

The Andean countries believe the move is a political one by FIFA, and has nothing to do with altitude. After Brazils defeat in La Paz in 1994, they have suffered further defeats (along with Argentina) at the hands of the Andean countries, which resulted in a campaign by the continents heavyweights, to ban football at altitude.

FIFA have failed to explain why they have decided on 2,500 metres. Some observers state this neatly excludes (politically powerful) Mexico, and their Azteca Stadium, which is 2,200 metres above sea level (a mere 300 metres below the cut off point). It is quite ironic that Mexicos Azteca Stadium hosted two World Cup finals (1970, 1986) at altitude, but now FIFA are banning matches at altitude.

This only strengthens the Andean nations view on FIFAs stance, being that is specifically targets them. Again the various FA's from the Andres argue that pressure from the continents heavyweights (Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay) has swayed FIFA's decision. The people from the Andres might actually have a valid point, as Brazil, and Argentina both have seats on FIFA's executive committee, and on the medical committee - coincidence?

Whether FIFA will keep their altitude ban in place is open to debate, and will cause many arguments over the course of the year. If FIFA are taking a stance on playing at altitude (based on medical reasoning), then they should consider stadiums where players are subject to heat, and humidity (like games in Manaus, Brazil) as well.

It seems that now the Andean nations are beating Brazil, and Argentina during the World Cup qualifiers (at high altitude), and Uruguay and Chile are failing to make it to the World Cup, that they are now complaining about their health. You have to remember that for more than 40 years, when the continents heavyweights defeated the Andean nations (even at altitude) there was no argument.

Many observers feel that this is an unfair decision, apparently motivated by the national federations from Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. If FIFA maintains the ban, they should start banning places that are excessively humid or cold. But will FIFA consider this option?

The whole point of having different stadiums in different weather conditions is that teams are truly tested. In the South American World Cup qualifiers, each team plays once at home, and once away against the other nations. The result is that each nation then gets the advantage of being at home and under familiar conditions once. This may be harsh, but any good team can overcome these differences, and it makes for great showmanship and training. FIFA should allow teams to do their talking on the field of play, not in the committee room.

Steven Gore is the editor of SoccerManager.com, the free online soccer game

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