Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The heights of stupidity?

A long time has passed since I first learned of FIFA's decision (June 2007) to "ban" high-altitude international matches. At a meeting in Zurich last Friday, soccer's governing body ratified a rule requiring players to acclimate for at least a week before international games above 2,750 metres (9,000 feet), and two weeks for matches higher than 3,000 metres (9,800 feet). While not a ban as such, the usual scheduling of international matches often means that the rule virtually bans games at those altitudes. FIFA said it was concerned about "negative health effects" on players unaccustomed to thin air. The issue affects particularly Bolivia (see picture of La Paz, nestling in the Andes),
and to highlight their plight, one-time Argentine star, Diego Maradona, played this weekend in a charity match (also to raise funds for victims of major flooding in Bolivia) against a team including Bolivia's President Evo Morales (see report, and picture of him playing in the mountains). Andean countries, particularly Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, will suffer from this decision.

While there is no doubt that playing sports at high altitude is a major challenge, I am no expert to say whether it really is a major health issue. I would think that health is also negatively affected by the way that Brazilians run rings around most other nations. Ban them practising their skills on the beaches? How about the toughness of European players? Ban nations from training and playing in harsh climatic conditions (Moscow in winter; England anytime; anywhere where temperatures are over 100 degrees fahrenheit)? Will the international tennis authorities find reason to reschedule the Australian Open because of the regular heatwaves? What about the way that those Scottish golfers who grew up in the bristling winds of Carnoustie can drive and putt better (really) than those patsies who grew up on the splendid calm of US courses in California? My money is still on Tiger Woods over Colin Montomery. Somehow, I feel that professional sportsmen and women know they have to adjust to climatic differences and do their best; in soccer moreso as you too get home advantage. Let's not even get into how much they are paid for doing so.

There is no evidence that altitude alone has determined the outcome of matches in favour of the home sides. South American soccer powerhouses, Argentina and Brazil, have made lots of noise about the "unfairness" of playing in places like La Paz (Bolivia) or Quito (Ecuador) or Cusco (Peru) in their regional tournaments. They want to win every time? In south and central America, Colombia (Bogota) and Mexico (Mexico City, Guadlajara, Toluca) have locations where they have played international matches that will be affected, too.

On the rarified air of discussion about altitude, other places where I have played soccer are not as high as FIFA's new limit but surely can cause problems. Most glaring are Addis Ababa (at 2,400 metres/8,000 feet); Mexico City (2,250metres/7,400 feet--just below the FIFA limit and having the added stress of one of the highest rates of pollution, where the sky is often yellow with sulphur); Denver (America's "mile high" city at 1,600 metres/5,280 feet); Lilongwe (1,000 metres/3,200 feet high, capital of Malawi in east Africa). The voices of these countires also have a little peep in FIFA. All I remember was that, with only a few days' preparation, the start of my match in Lilongwe was a personal hell as I gasped for air and tried to deal with the speed with which the ball flew through the air. We lost, but it was due to lack of skill; we had a similar result when on lower ground in Blantyre.

But the "negative health impact" of many local conditions could be considered. National teams have used many kinds of local advantage, thinking or knowing that the health of the visitors would be "negatively impacted" and so play poorly. Did the US not schedule a World Cup qualifying game against Jamaica outdoors in its far north in the height of winter? Does the US not schedule games in Denver (altitude and cold) and Detroit (very cold) in the height of winter? Foul! If you follow American football and NFL games, could you imagine the teams from Florida, California or Louisiana thinking that the Commissioner will take games away from Buffalo, Green Bay, New England. Cleveland? And these teams don't play in domes. Give me a break! The NFL have even decided that it's possible to use heating equipment (such as warmed benches). America's other sports love affair, baseball, always pits teams from the west (say California) against those from the east (say Pittsburg), and key World Series games are in September-October. What, the LA Dodgers are not going to play in Pittsburg? Put on your cleats; add an undershirt; slide on the gloves; put a hand warmer in your pocket. Get on with it! Not quite the same as altitude, but you get my point?

Imagine if you are from almost any but the largest Caribbean island and you are scheduled to play in the Maracana stadium, in Rio de Janeiro, which has a normal capacity of 205,000, of whom 155,000 can be seated. You're there in front of more people than live in your country, by a large margin. You think you can play? Let me tell you, when I played in front of 15,000 I trembled for the first 15 minutes, and I grew up in England and was used to seeing crowds as large as 100,000 at Wembley. Bad for my health? Sure.

Fortunately, other sports bodies seem saner and have not gone this same route, yet. We know there was a hulla-balloo about the Olympics in Mexico City, but given the way that the thin air also enhances speed and jumping performances none of the results and records are erased from the record books.

I must declare that I have little respect for FIFA as an administrative body for the sport. They have tolerated so many things that have destroyed the ability of players to play--for too long tolerating cynical foul play--and supported match officials who are good at imposing technicalities (imposing sanctions against "excessive celebrations"). They seem to have supported soccer's "big boys" for so long and the minnows have had to grope for recognition, such as the way they allocated slots for Africa for a long time. Now, Africa is recognized as the source of some of the best talent. OK. South Africa has the next World Cup, but really.

It's just over 20 years ago (1986) that the World Cup was played in Mexico, with the finals played in Mexico City's (high altitude) Azteca stadium. Maybe thinking on sport and health issues have evolved, but so too has player conditioning. I don't recall any matches played in that stadium during that tournament, including the final, where the altitude appeared to pose any health problems. The main problems were posed by Maradona and Argentina, and dare I say it by the match officials (individually and collectively) who helped create one of the most contentious on-pitch moments in World Cup history. They could not see that Maradona (165 cm/5 feet 5 inches) clearly punched the ball over England's goalkeeper, Shilton (185 cm/6 feet 1 inches)--to score the "hand of God" goal that gave Argentina the lead (see report), and helped them seal their win in the quaterfinal and then head to the final match. To this day, despite all the films and admissions by Maradona, I think FIFA has remained stuck in silence with very little criticism or complaint made against Tunisian referee (Ali Bin Nasser) or the Bulgarian linesman, Bogdan Dochev.

I guess that countries will have to abide by this piece of foolishness, but let's hope that Sepp Blatter and the rest of FIFA deal with the sport with a good dose of common sense, honesty and realism. I can hope?

1 comment:

Jdid said...

are they going to ban matches in China? I see marathon runners complaining they wont run in the olympics because of the terrible pollution in Beijing. I'm thinking a 90 minute football match in Beijing has got to do some lung damage as well.