So Flamengo, what was all the altitude fuss about?

April 11, 2008

For the last year, Brazilian club Flamengo have led an almost obsessive campaign for a ban on matches at high altitude. Following a match away to Bolivian side Real Potosi at 4,000 metres above sea level in the Libertadores Cup, club president Marcio Braga has gone on the warpath describing high altitude games as “inhumane” and comparing them to a form of doping for the home team.

Braga has taken his case to FIFA, the Court of Arbitration for Sport and even the United Nations human rights commission — all without success. Although FIFA has effectively banned World Cup qualifiers above 2,750 metres, the South American Football Confederation has refused to follow suit for the Libertadores.

So it was with great trepidation that Flamengo on Wednesday visited Cienciano at 3,300 metres in the Peruvian Andes, with the added worry that their campaign had understandably antagonised the locals. But their fears proved unfounded. Flamengo ran out comfortable 3-0 winners, even bettering their 2-1 win over the same opponents at the Maracana earlier in the group.

So what was the big fuss about? Recent results suggest that altitude does not really offer anything more than a small advantage to the home team, rather similar to playing on a bumpy pitch or in weather which the visitors are unused to. In the last World Cup qualifying competition, for example, Bolivia managed four wins, two draws and three defeats in La Paz.

It also begs the question: are Brazilian clubs and the media, which has helped stoke up public opinion, being hypocritical?

Writing on the BBC’s web site this week, correspondent Tim Vickery argues that they are. Vickery points out that, while Brazilian teams make a big song and dance about the players’ health being paramount, there is not a whisper from them when their own federation, in agreement with local television stations, schedules domestic games to be played in mid-afternoon in high summer.

When Brazil needed local backing for their 2014 World Cup bid, the Brazilian confederation kept quiet about the altitude issue. But when the South American federation last week asked FIFA to reconsider the 2,750 limit which had been reinstated, Brazil was the only country which refused to sign the declaration.

Until FIFA considers banning matches in other extreme conditions, it will be hard not to sympathise with the likes of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

Brian Homewood, Rio de Janeiro

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