AL­TI­TUDE!SICK­NESS

CHRIS DUNLAVY LOOKS BACK AT WHEN FIFA BLUN­DERED IN TO A SOUTH AMER­I­CAN SQUAB­BLE

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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