Untold world cup: football with altitude. What the mainstream media never tell you.

By Tony Attwood

The last post (the one from Walter on what you can and can’t say to a ref) was about football with attitude. So this is about football with altitude. Clever eh?

Oh well…

Anyway, as you would expect, the issue of playing 10 miles up in the air is one that FIFA has looked at, made decisions on, changed its mind, cocked up, held a conference on, mucked about with, and then left unresolved.  Which is not surprising since there’s no money it in.

And as usual the press and associated footballing media have ignored the truth behind the issues, so it is, inevitably, up to Untold to bring you the hard hitting facts, along with the usual 8.7 Richter Scale rating in terms of irony, sideswipes and general mishmash.

So here we go…

In 2007 Flamengo of Brazil played a cup match at 4000 meters in Bolivia, some players were taken ill, and they said they would never play at that height again.  (It’s a sort of South American equivalent of Luton Town directors saying they would never play Millwall again after the Millwall fans threw some cushions on the pitch at the end of a game).

Within weeks FIFA had struck and said all matches had to take place at 2500 meters or less, which led to complaints from Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia all of whom said that such a ruling just about did it for them since they each had a national stadium built at over 2500m.

Two weeks later FIFA changed its mind again and said it would look into the matter.  It is, as far as I know, still looking.  Meanwhile South Africa got the world cup, and is playing games at altitude.  Soccer City is at 1701 meters so would be ok by the old short lived rule – but it is high enough to mess with your lungs if you are required to run about a bit.  There are all told seven venues in the world cup that are at heights where players will notice the difference.

To be fair to FIFA they did hold a big meeting about altitude, and the consensus was that over 500 meters you start to get an effect when playing football, and the effect varies from player to player.  (European Journal of Applied Phyisiology vol 96 page 404 and vol 3 page 29 for the full details).

But acclimatisation can help and most players (but not all) will probably be ok.  There are however always some who just can’t adjust so well.

But there’s something else…

The Scandinavian Journal of Medicient and Science in Sports (vol 18 page 85) noted that the problem was not acclimatisation by a period at altitude, but readjustment when you come back down again – and that’s what England will be doing – and some of the quarter finals are at altitude (but not the semis).

And there’s another point too: the ball.  Altitude alters the way the ball moves through the air.  The new world cup ball is supposed to be totally pure in its directional abilities, because it is aerodynamically sound.  And it might well be – but that just makes it much more confusing for players when suddenly the way the ball moves changes from one ground to another.

At altitude (because of the difference in air density) the ball travels faster, giving it less time to dip.  A shot that might edge into a top corner of a goal at sea level, will hit the bar at 1700 meters.  A keeper trying to anticipate a dip which would occur at sea level will look a right Charlie at altitude.  Shots which bend around the wall by employing the Magnus force (New Scientist No 2763 page 36) are much harder to predict as the lower density affects the drag of the atmosphere on the ball and the spin of the ball.

(Walter aren’t you glad you referee in Belgium?)

In short, if the keepers don’t change their approach, they get beaten every time.  If the man taking the free kick doesn’t change his approach the ball either shoots over the bar, or hits the wall.

Now there is an engineer at Oxford University who has used his time to look at nearly 1500 international analysing these effects.  (Why can’t I have a job like that?)

He found that it is not the altitude that matters – it is the change to altitude that matters.  A team acclimatised at low altitude has problems up high.  A team that has got up the mountain and got used to the height has problems when they come down.  The causes of physiological (oxygen in the blood stream and that sort of stuff) and the aerodynamics.

So what should England have done?

Ideally they should have left some of the team at sea level, ready for match two, rather than taking them all up top for match one.  Having taken every one up on high, they’ve not go to bring them down again.

In particular they should have prepared to change keepers, perhaps taking the 1st and 3rd choice keep to the first game, but leaving the second choice keeper at sea level to play in game two.

They should also have been practising with the new ball at altitude and down on the ground.

The only group of players who get real experience at playing at altitude and then shortly after at sea level are the South Americans and Mexicans.   The more you do it, the more your body gets used to it, and the more you get used to the different tactics at sea level and up top.

Of course England didn’t take any notice of me, nor of the excellent resume in New Scientist last week.  But then they wouldn’t, would they?

But we really should do something. I propose that before the next world cup the FA should build a very big hill – about 3000 meters tall, and put Wembley II on top of it.  Then England should play some matches there.  Just to be ready.

What do you think?


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12 Replies to “Untold world cup: football with altitude. What the mainstream media never tell you.”

  1. You are reaching new heights here Tony. And lucky we always play at sea level over here as I don’t think I could get use to do my games at such a high level.

    I remember when the WC was in France the Belgium team went high in the mountains to benefit from training at high level and then to come down to play the games. They went out in the group stages. So this could confirm the examinations the did.
    Now I must admit that I have thought that you would get some benefit from training high, playing low but I am willing to believe the people who have examined these things and who are much more qualified than I ever can be. As the Belgium example showed.

  2. @ Walter: Ideally, its better to train high and play low to bulk up your lung capacity (cos u know, you gotta suck up more air up to maintain the O2 levels)… But thats “ideal”… If you come down and end up playing in places like say china or India then the air quality at sea level is really poor and your ultra sensitive lungs get messed up..

    @Tony: Did england train at sea levels similar to SA? I have no idea about the air quality in SA.. if its bad then all bets are off! Training low and playing high makes no sense under any circumstance.

    Aerodynamics! hmmm.. thats an interesting point! Well the lack of “dip” could be offset by making the ball slightly heavier (although the path of the ball becomes predictable). It’d be great if you did a piece on this new ball they have designed for the tournament… Great article btw.. Wembley II? Lol! First the FA has to fix Wembley I, crazy pitch!

  3. Hey Tony –

    Great topic! Especially regarding the ball and effects altitude could have there.

    Here in the US we have a somewhat similar situation with baseball (and I apologize for bringing up baseball in TWO threads today!), albeit in a slightly different manner.

    Every year pro baseball teams take their spring training either in Florida or Arizona. The primary reason for this is the nice, warm weather in those locations at that time of year which allows the players to get maximum training time before the season starts. The teams training in Arizona have a much greater adjustment when moving back to their home parks though when it comes to pitching.

    When throwing a baseball, pitchers utilize the laces on the ball to impart spin. A pro pitcher can throw a curve ball under normal conditions that will “break” – side movement – roughly 12-16 inches and also have a sharp drop. When done correctly, such a curve ball can make any batter look foolish. However, in the dry, thin air of Arizona, the actual “bite” of the laces is reduced. The spin is reduced. The movement on the ball is reduced. The same with a knuckle ball, where the pitcher grasps the ball with the fingertips and tries to impart as little spin as possible, thereby increasing a floating, wobbling effect. We see the same in football when a strike is made on the ball and there’s no rotation – it floats and wobbles and has some crazy movement. But again, for pitchers training in Arizona, a knuckle ball tends just to float with very little wobble or erratic movement. The danger in such lack of bite on the ball for curve balls and wobble on knuckles, is that pitchers will try to over-exert spin to compensate or throw a knuckle ball with more speed which negates the wobbling effect. Over exertion on torque in the arm to apply more spin leads to serious fatigue in the elbow and shoulder and possibly injury.

    Normally, when teams return to their home parks from Arizona spring training, the “power pitchers” – those that throw mainly fast balls and split-finger fast balls (pitches which rely on sheer speed rather than spin for effect), have an easier transition because their pitches were more true in performance during training. Pitchers that throw “off speed” stuff, curve balls, cutters, sliders, screw balls and knuckle balls, have to make sure to throw the pitches normally and not over-throw as the pitches would react with too much effect.

  4. Hell of a pity that South Africa pulled Mexico out of the hat for the first game! One of the only sides regularly playing at altitude on a regular basis. Thought both sides were looking a bit exhausted at the end of the game. Probably a fair result but Moekana not moving up cost us the equaliser. 3 of the Mexicans, including the scorer, would have been offside.
    What thoughts so far? hell of a tragedy about Mandela’s gt. grand-daughter. Really took the shine off the day.

  5. If I may give my comments on the ref: Vela was offside so correct decision from the linesman and no goal. Felt sorry for Vela but it was correct.
    SA could have had a penalty and I think that if the attacker had not taken on the shot it would have been given. Now the ref was deceived by the fact that he could shoot.
    Overall a very good game from the ref was the general conclusion from 2 refs at home. We think he had some 95 of the 100 calls correct and that is good, if not excellent.

  6. Tony,
    To my earlier point of England and much of Europe playing Football in winter as a disadvantage while South Americans play football in a warmer climate all things constant. So the small advantages will prevail with countries with like skill. The teams with the most skill in terms of technique and team tactics will move on per the usual but the winner will have the advantage of high skill of technique, high skill of team tactic, and the advantage of year round high altitude playing. The question is who is that? And, lastly the team who desires to win most (heart).

  7. @0.9 Calibre
    The air quality of India is much better than those of England And USA check your facts firsts according to all green surveys
    due to our following of vegetarianism and traditional beliefs in greenery

  8. Anyone have the feeling that the France Uruguay game was fixed? When my wife can say “They’re not trying” then they weren’t trying. I’d given up on a no-score bore draw 10 minutes prior. Amazing that one of the silly sods got himself sent off…maybe he was as bored as the audience.

  9. @Kushagra India :

    I’m sorry to have offended you. I thought my statement was empirically justified having lived in India for a 22 years in most major cities and towns. With a population of over a billion and rising consumerism puts us in the “bracket”. Besides the point of the statement was to analyse the implications of training high and playing low, you seem to have seen beyond that for which I apologise. Just typing out a comment saying India’s air quality is better than USA,UK etc doesn’t solve the mounting pollution problems in India. But you must know better since you have seen all the “green survey” results which are just hokum in my humble opinion. No country wants to claim they are the worst. There is no objective scale to “make a list”. I suggest you take the corporate spun and politically manipulated “survey” results with a pinch of salt.

    Once again, i apologise to have quoted the names of the countries without “checking my facts”! 🙂

  10. ‘Champions adjust’ Billie Jean King……..

    Skiers race a different course each day. They seem to adjust.

    Concert pianists play on different instruments in each city. They seem to adjust.

    Tennis players play on clay, cement, grass and indoors. They seem to adjust.

    Why can’t the best footballers adjust??

  11. Things less likely to work at altitude: free kicks up and down with a wall in the way. Hoofing the ball to the opposition then huffing and puffing to get it back again.

    Things more likely to work at altitude: shots struck straight and true along the ground or rising slowly. Keep ball with rotational resting as four players interact whilst six watch on, the four changing continuously. Wingers passing defenders and crossing on the ground for strikers to shoot home.

    Anyone experienced in ski-ing, mountaineering, fell-running who resided at low altitude will know what works. And what training really strengthens muscles and increases stamina at altitude.

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