CHRIS DUNLAVY LOOKS BACK AT WHEN FIFA BLUNDERED IN TO A SOUTH AMERICAN SQUABBLE
Or just home-field advantage?
FEBRUARY, 2007. The players of Flamengo CF board a plane at Galeão International, leaving behind a heaving city broiling in a sticky Brazilian summer. Their destination is the Estadio Mario Mercado, home of Bolivian side Real Potosi, Flamengo’s opponents in the Copa Libertadores. It is a hellish journey.
Potosi, once the second-biggest city in the Americas thanks to a 16th century silver boom, has no commercial airport.
Instead, Flamengo fly to Sucre, Bolivia’s constitutional capital, via Buenos Aires. From there, a coach takes them on a three-hour journey up precipitous mountain passes.
All told, the trip takes over 16 hours, the equivalent of flying from London to Perth on the west coast of Australia. Little do they realise, however, that their ordeal has just begun.
Because Potosi nestles 4,090 metres up in the Bolivian Andes, more than two miles above sea level, making Estadio Mario Mercado the highest football stadium on the planet.
Hail, sleet, howling winds. Even now, in summer, evening temperatures can dip below zero. The 17,000 supporters are swaddled in fleeces, scarves and hats.
Far worse, though, is the altitude. Up here, the air is thinner than fag paper. Within minutes of kick-off, the Flamengo players – including Juninho, the Middlesbrough legend – are gasping, their muscles starved. At one stage, the match is halted as trainers run on with bottles of oxygen.
Flamengo scrape a 2-2 draw but they aren’t happy. “Last night, our players pulled off an heroic draw against Real Potosi in unsporting and inhumane conditions,” said the club in a statement signed by president Marcio Braga.
“We want to make it public that we will officially inform the Brazilian Football Confederation, the South American Football Confederation and FIFA that we will not take part in matches at an altitude above the limits recommended by sports medicine.
“A football pitch at an altitude not recommended by health specialists does not offer equal conditions to both teams and this damages the sporting principle of fair play. It degrades the human condition and puts the life of the athletes at risk. Failure to ban games in these conditions is the same as condoning doping.”
If the vehemence was striking, the complaint was old rope. Brazil and Argentina – who didn’t win in Bolivia for 32 years between 1973 and 2005 – have always moaned about playing in the clouds.
In the 90s, Argentine coach Daniel Passarella even tried to blame his side’s
defeat to Ecuador on a ball that “doesn’t turn in the altitude”.
He was laughed out of town, his words dismissed as yet more sour grapes from one of the continent’s entitled powerhouses.
This time, though, things were different. Flamengo’s complaint landed on Sepp Blatter’s desk just months after Peru had controversially announced their intention to shift World Cup qualifiers from the capital city Lima (200 metres above sea level) to Cusco, at 3,400 metres.
That in itself came three years after the amusingly - if commercially - titled Peruvian side Deportivo Wankas had cynically moved their base to Cerro de Pasco, the highest city in the world.
If those sides could reasonably be accused of sharp practice, Potosi - whose only crime was to play in their home ground - patently could not. Yet in June 2007, FIFA blundered in.
Internationals, they said, could be played at venues above 2,500 metres only if players had one week to acclimatise, rising to 15 days for games above 3,000 metres. Given the constraints of the football calendar, this was effectively an outright ban.
So began an eight-month wrangle that would unite half of South America, see FIFA accused of discrimination and even prompt Diego Maradona to lace up his boots at the age of 47.
Nobody was hit harder than Bolivia, whose capital, La Paz, lies at an elevation of 3,650 metres above sea level.
The nation’s national assembly, otherwise a bogged down mess of warring factions, was suddenly unified behind a common cause.
An expedient conviviality also bloomed between previously antipathetic nations. Ecuador and Colombia - whose capital cities fell foul of the new regulations - joined forces with Peru, Chile and Bolivia to lobby Geneva.
Why, they argued, should people be denied the chance to watch football simply because they happen to live up a mountain?
FIFA claimed altitude gave certain nations an ‘unfair’ advantage. Yet as Potosi quite reasonably argued in the wake of Flamengo’s bitchy missive, their Andean players faced 35-degree heat and 80 per cent humidity in the return leg at Maracana. Which, by the way, they lost.
Why should they have to suck it up whilst Brazil goes crying to FIFA? And what of Brazil’s other advantages; vast resources, lucrative sponsorship deals, worldclass players and coaches.
Consider, too, that Brazil and Argentina have won seven World Cups between them. Bolivia have qualified for just one, in 1994. So much for an advantage.
It looked a clear case of a big bully getting his own way, with even Argentine journalists lambasting the decision.
Talking of sympathetic Argentinians, enter Maradona. In 2008, the World Cup winning striker played the entirety of a 60-minute charity game in La Paz.
“I came here to show that there is nothing dangerous about playing so high,” he said. “I am 47 and if I can do it then it should be easy for young professionals.”
At the same event, Bolivian president Evo Morales decried “football apartheid”.
By mid-2008, FIFA no longer had a leg to stand on. A Bolivian media outlet even dredged up embarrassing quotes from Blatter’s previous visit to La Paz, when he had said that living in Switzerland meant altitude “didn’t scare” him.
Eventually, facing outright rebellion from countries who vowed to play wherever they liked, FIFA suspended the ban.
Bolivia celebrated by drawing with Brazil and then thrashing Argentina 6-1 in La Paz. Their manager? Maradona, who had little choice but to graciously accept defeat.
Potosi, too, would earn a measure of revenge. In 2012, fate conspired to send Flamengo into the Andes once again; this time, a side featuring Ronaldinho lost 2-1, despite spending a week getting acclimatised.
Yet just as it was Argentina, not Bolivia, who qualified for the 2010 World Cup, so it was Flamengo who triumphed in the Copa, a 2-0 victory in the Maracana breaking Potosi hearts. And that, ultimately, is the tale of the tape. No professional player has ever died from playing at altitude. Nobody has suffered any long-term health problems.
Since the ban was lifted, Brazil and Argentina have qualified for three World Cups. Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru boast just two between them. It is a similar story in the Copa, where Brazil and Argentina account for eight of the last nine victors.
South America’s geography means it will always be uniquely advantageous to home teams, but those advantages earn only isolated results.
Over an 18-game qualifying campaign, a two-legged tie or a Copa America, the quality of players will ultimately tell.
That is why, for all FIFA’s insistence on “reopening the discussion”, the issue is dead – and should stay that way.
Good view: La Paz’s Estadio Hernando Siles and, insets, Potosi, left, and Cusco
Good shout: Diego Maradona
No fears: Sepp Blatter