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?
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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