Tuesday, June 05, 2007

FIFA prohibits international football matches at high altitude

Not much is usually written about international sports law, however, last months have been immensely rich in controversial cases from the many diffrent sports. It is also international football that has witnessed several troublesome developments in past weeks. Many of these developments concern recent decisions by regional and international football bodies. This post examines recent decision delivered by FIFA concerning prohibition of international footbal matches at high altitude. Let us explain firstly what FIFA is? The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is an association governed by Swiss law founded in 1904 and based in Zurich. It has 208 member football associations and its goal, enshrined in its Statutes, is the constant improvement of football. It is composed of a Congress,Executive Committee, General Secretariat and committees.

Some days ago FIFA delivered a decision prohibiting on international football matches being played at venues above altitudes of 2,500 meters claiming that it is dangerous for footballers unaccustomed to the shortage of oxygen. The ban means Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador are barred from playing in their own capitals while Peru cannot play in Cuzco, where they were thinking of staging their home qualifying matches for the next World Cup. For example, Bolivia's Stadio Hernan Siles in La Paz, is 3,600 metres above sea level, Mexico City is 2,224 above sea level, Bogotá, Colombia 2,546 and; Quito, Ecuador 2,850m, 3,399m Cusco, Peru, and La Paz Bolivia 3,600m above sea level.

Newly re-elected FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, said:

"I know there will be complaints about this, especially from South America, but we have to think of the health of the players first. It also leads to a distortion of the competition if matches are played at such a level.

"The Executive Committee have listened to a proposal from the medical committee and have decided to act because to play at above that altitude is not healthy or fair.«

It appears that such decision does not have much legitimacy and credibly regardless of any health consideration. Football matches have been played at high altitudes for a century without major conundrums. This decision reads as a very Euro-centric policy and it could be qualified as a potential form of indirect discrimination. Does this prohibition imply that FIFA could ban matches in excessive heat or cold? Some South-American representative said »Let’s not play in Africa, where it is very hot and we would have to put air conditioning in the stadiums, or in Norway because it’s too cold.” Another question is why ban was set on 2,500 meters and not on 1,500 or 2,000 meters.

One of reasons for popularity and attractiveness of football game and is that it is probably the most accessible sport of them all and it is played all over the world. Setting artificial rules does not lead anywhere. It would be interesting to examine and assess the quality medical advice on which this decision was adopted and whether playing on the high altitude can indeed lead to the unfair advantage. Practicing sports at high-altitude can be very often very beneficial for man sportsmen and sportswomen. It appears that this decision has been adopted in very hasty manner and without any consultation from affected countries. It would compelling to observe how would Swiss nation would react if the Wengen downhill race would be prohibited just because it would be to dangerous to ski from so high up in the Alps. This is just another of recent controversial decisions of international football governing bodies, which questions deeply the legitimacy and credibility of its mandate. For once Evo Morales has a point when he is saying that “He who wins at altitude, wins with dignity. He who fears altitude has no dignity.”


Derek Fincham said...

Ridiculous decision. They have halftime. Why can't players just take oxygen then? Get to the stadium a couple of days early, and there is very little impact.

Altitude has some impact, but that's part of playing an away game.

They should ban the ball too, because whoever has it may have an advantage; that way, there would always be a tie.

We should probably ban crowds too, because they might be louder in different stadiums. Shouldn't they be more concerned with Italian referees? They seem to have a bigger impact on the matches.

Ole Windahl Pedersen said...

Although the decisions of FIFA, baring in mind it is the world governing body of football, usually appear to lack common sense from a football fan’s perspective, I have no real problem with this decision.

It is quite obvious that playing football, and conducting physical activity in general, in higher altitudes bare a significant effect on the athlete’s capabilities. The benefits referred to in the original post will only occur once the athlete’s body has adjusted to the conditions. Something that does not happen overnight. The advantage this gives home teams like Columbia, Bolivia and Ecuador is evident for anyone to see in the teams home records in qualifying games. This is further highlighted when the said teams appear on a “level playing field” during finals and their football skills fall well short of expectations invited by their home record. The argument that FIFA’s decision should then lead to the banning of games in Africa or other warmer places is in itself superficial. When tournaments have taken place in such places games have been scheduled to take place at times when temperatures are low. It can be argued that the number one factor behind the popularity of football is the game’s unpredictability (baring the English Premier League). Giving home teams unfair disadvantages seriously impairs this and the decision is therefore in order.

On a different note, this week’s announcement by UEFA, the European governing body of football, that fans of Liverpool FC are seen as the worst behaved group of fans seems more interesting. Not withstanding the usual claims of victimization by the British football fans, it is paramount that the game’s governing bodies take all possible steps to stop the association of international football events with violence and vandalism.

Finally, and a more general point, a broad discussion on the status of the rules and regulations governing football vis-à-vis society’s traditional norms and laws is very much welcomed. Such a discussion could for instance deal with the contractual claims relied upon by clubs when completely excluding players from talking to other clubs and representatives.

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