An ongoing debate. Can sheer altitude trump sheer quality?
South America is a continent of diverse geography. From the low-lying city of Buenos Aires in Argentina, to the mountainous city of Quito, Ecuador, standing at almost 9350 feet above sea level. There is a reason behind this little geography lesson, and it has its basis in a long running debate in the region: does playing at a higher altitude provide certain teams with an unfair advantage?
Playing at a higher altitude regularly enables players to become accustomed to the thinner air, which holds less oxygen. For teams coming from low-lying areas, it can be quite an ordeal playing a full 90 minutes when there is much less oxygen available than they are used to. This can have a negative impact on a team’s performance as they tire much quicker than normally. For example, in 2009 during the World Cup Qualifying rounds Bolivia beat Brazil 2-1, Argentina 6-1. Both these games took place in La Paz, almost 12000 feet above sea level. It is the highest capital city in the world. Despite results like this, Bolivia failed to qualify and finished second from bottom of the 10 team table. They were still beaten by Venezuela and by Ecuador in La Paz.
This week saw a couple of interesting ties taking place at altitude. Jorge Wilstermann (BOL) took on reigning Copa Libertadores champions Internacional (BRA) in Cochabamba at 8500 feet, whilst LDU Quito (ECU) took on Penarol (URU). Wilstermann took an early lead in their match through Juan Ignacio Brown and it looked like it might be their night. However, he then cancelled out his effort by heading a Leandro Damiao cross into his own net. Internacional then took control, despite the altitude, and went on to win 4-1 with Damiao putting in an excellent performance. Globo Esporte had reported that the Internacional side had taken oxygen tanks with them to the team hotel to combat the conditions. Clearly it worked in this case.
Last week Penarol played LDU in Montevideo. Penarol came out on top and won 1-0 in the town by the ocean. The result of this weeks game was much different. LDU came out on top in a 5-0 thrashing of the Uruguayan team. Did playing at such an elevation cause this result for Penarol?
LDU have become a respectable side in South American football. They won the 2008 Copa and are a strong side, but they have lost both away games in their group this year, whilst winning both their home games. They failed to qualify for last years Copa however. Walter Calderon did put in a fantastic performance after coming off the bench, grabbing himself two goals, winning a penalty, and putting a ball into the box that led to an own goal. In order to avoid their performance in the competition being criticised, they need to get some good results away from home to show it isn’t just the altitude seeing them through. Judging by these results it could be argued that their results are in fact down to their home altitude advantage.
Teams can train to acclimatise to the altitude by using multiple different methods. At the end of the day quality should see you through, as it did for Internacional in Bolivia. This is also why Bolivia still struggle to qualify for World Cups. Playing at higher altitude only improves fitness and stamina, not quality. I do not believe it provides an unfair advantage. A team should not be penalised just because of where they hail from. Teams who are used to playing in more hot and humid climes do not get the same attention despite the same detrimental effects it can have on performance. In the Libertadores a team still needs to have decent away form if they are to go all the way and win the tournament.
Leon de Huanuco (PER) also drew with Gremio (BRA) at just over 6000 feet after losing 2-0 to them in Brazil. However, they did lose at home earlier in the tournament to Junior (COL) who are based by the ocean in the Northern Colombian city Barranquilla. This shows that it is not always simply down to altitude and that the result is not certain before the game has begun. Altitude can of course still have a big part to play, but many teams in South America are used to the conditions such as Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru to a certain extent. However, it remains that Argentina and Brazil are still more successful in respect to the Libertadores and International Competitions.
Elsewhere there were some great performances this week. Cruzeiro (BRA) won 6-1 against Deportes Tolima (COL) and Estudiantes (ARG) beat Guarani (PAR) 5-1 with a hat-trick from Hernan Rodrigo Lopez, including a superbly improvised headed lob. Enzo Perez had a magnificent game too as he ran the show in midfield before being substituted. There were some great contenders for goal of the week. As Elano’s 40-yard free kick has already been posted (I suggest you see it!) I thought I’d pick another. Jhasmani Campos’ strike for Oriente Petrolero (BOL) against Atletico Junior (COL) wins it, a great effort that crashed in off the bar. It is the first goal in the following clip.
This week saw the first qualifiers from the group stage. Libertad of Paraguay and Junior qualified for the last 16 while Cruzeiro and Estudiantes took huge steps towards qualification. Santos (BRA) were beaten away to Colo Colo (CHI) 3-2 in a surprise result that has left the Brazilians with it all to do to qualify. It will be interesting to see their next few games and see if they can progress.