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Last Updated: Monday, 4 June 2007, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
Tim Vickery column
Tim Vickery
By Tim Vickery
South American football reporter

Fifa got all high and mighty last week with the decision to forbid matches at altitude.

A protest against Fifa's decision in Quito
Ecuadoreans express their disgust against the decision in Quito
But as the campaign against the ban gathers momentum, some type of climbdown looks increasingly likely.

There is no doubt that playing at altitude represents an enormous challenge for the unacclimatised player, who loses part of his athletic capacity in the rarefied air.

A glance at the home and away records of Bolivia and Ecuador, South America's mountain specialists, will quickly show the difference.

But this does not form the justification for the Fifa ban.

Perhaps one day a debate will take place on the subject of how much home advantage is too much advantage.

This, though, will have to look at a wide range of conditions, and not just altitude.

The altitude ban is being based on the health risks being run by unacclimatised players. It has two major problems.

The first is medical. The evidence at this point is flimsy. Some specialists argue that playing in extreme heat is considerably more dangerous.

The medical commission of the South American Federation will meet soon, so Fifa can expect its position to be undermined by a barrage of evidence.

The other problem is political. As is stands, the ban appears to apply not only to games involving national teams, but also to international club competitions.

Quito Mayor Paco Mancayo gives his support to the rally
Paco Moncayo, Mayor of Quito, gives his support to the rally

Ecuador don't have to play at Quito, just as Bolivia don't have to play at La Paz. If necessary they can move down the Andes to find other venues.

But what of the clubs based in the mountain cities? Are they expected to move, or to cease to exist?

The ban would exclude a huge swathe of South America from international competition.

So it flies directly in the face of the current diplomatic and economic moves towards regional integration, the fashionable idea of the moment in a continent looking for a path to prosperity.

This helps explain the fact that, whatever their football leaders think, the presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela were quick to come out against the ban.

It is probable, then, that once all the politicking has taken place the measure will not apply to international club games.

It is even possible that it will not apply to national team matches, and that the whole thing will be forgotten pending further investigation.

If that happens then Brazil, seen as the main force behind the ban, can only have themselves to blame.

The seeds of the current controversy were first sewn in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup.

At that point South America's nations were still divided into separate groups, and as ill fortune would have it, Brazil were placed in the same group as Bolivia and Ecuador.

Bolivain President Evo Morales
Bolivain President Evo Morales is a prominent voice opposing Fifa

Brazilian teams have developed a phobia about playing at altitude, and it was alleged at the time that Brazil put pressure on both opponents to switch their matches to venues at sea level.

They did this successfully in the case of Ecuador, unsuccessfully in the case of Bolivia, where, at La Paz, Brazil suffered their first ever defeat in World Cup qualification.

Despite that reverse Brazil went on to qualify for USA 94, and win it too. As holders they were automatically through to France 98.

They were back in the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup, by which time South America had adopted the current marathon format, with all 10 nations playing each other home and away.

The allegations of manipulation in 1993 had left a bad taste, so in order to ensure the integrity of the qualifying campaign countries were limited to one designated city where they would stage all their home games.

This was specifically designed to contain the problem of altitude. If one country had to go up to La Paz, everyone had to. There could be no external pressure.

Brazil, on account of its size, was given the right to have two home cities.

They chose Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the traditional centres, and quickly found the fans to be very demanding.

The Maracana and Morumbi stadiums echoed with boos, the players' morale was in tatters and World Cup qualification was in real doubt.

Brazil pulled a fast one. Using the excuse of an energy crisis affecting the south east of the country, they moved their final home games to other venues - smaller cities where the supporters were more tolerant.

It broke the rules but they got away with it and three wins got them safely over the finish line.

But now they are paying the price. They themselves took away the plank that had been put in place to contain the problem of altitude.

If they could pick and choose their venues, so could the others. The one designated city was dead.

Peru decided to pull a fast one of their own. For the next campaign they were planning to take their matches against Brazil and other altitude haters high up the Andes to Cuzco.

This was the development that led to Fifa hitting the panic button and announcing the ban - leaving politicians and administrators to sort out a mess as high as a mountain.


Got a question about South American football for Tim Vickery? Email him at

I was stunned when I heard that a Mexican club fielded an under-strength side in both legs of the quarter-final match against a Brazilian side because they wanted to give priority to the Mexican championships, which is a reverse of what happens in the Champions League.

Is the Copa Libertadores that highly-rated among South American clubs?
Simpson Emmanuel

This is a Mexican thing. It was America against Santos. The Mexicans are invited to participate in the Libertadores, and they pay a price for being guests.

If they win the competition, because they are from outside the continent, they can't represent South America in the annual World Club Cup. This swayed their decision.

South American sides in the same position will pick an under strength side for the league game and have all the stars out for the Libertadores.

Do you think that Brazil should (and successfully can) host the 2014 World Cup? And did Colombia withdraw their application through external pressure from Brazil?
Tony Robertson

I don't think the Colombia bid was ever serious. It was doomed from the start because they'd agreed to support Brazil in 2003.

I think they were most concerned with putting down a marker, and especially in defending their future rights against the rise of Venezuela, who are investing heavily for this month's Copa America.

Brazil have a fight on their hands. There's a lot of work to do and plenty of grounds for scepticism.

I don't find it reassuring that having been declared South America's sole candidate in 2003 they still haven't sorted out which cities they want to use.

But if it does go ahead then the investments needed in stadiums and, especially, in transport infrastructure can be extremely beneficial to Brazilian football and Brazilian society.

Bolivian leader kicks off protest
31 May 07 |  Americas
Fifa bans high-altitude football
28 May 07 |  Americas
Tim Vickery column
19 Feb 07 |  Football


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