The Cup Running Over

June 8, 2010 10:00 AM

How Playing at Altitude Might Transform the World Cup

Everyone is talking about how holding the first Cup in Africa could affect the results. But one of the under analyzed aspects of every World Cup is the effect of climate and altitude on both the play and outcomes. This World Cup will be the first held in the southern hemisphere - and thus during winter - since 1978 in Argentina. South Africa is sub-tropical for the most part, so the temperature shouldn't be much of an issue for most squads. But altitude might well play a significant role since many games, including the final, will be played in a Johannesburg roughly a mile above sea level, much like Denver.
The weather has been a factor since the first World Cup match in Montevideo in 1930, when it snowed the night before and the Mexicans blamed the climate for their 4-1 loss to France. Weather is a major reason why European countries - accustomed for the most part to cooler temperatures and sea level conditions - don't play well outside their continent. At the Cups held in Asia in 2002 and the U.S. in 1994 - both played in temperatures usually 80 degrees or higher -- several teams noticeably wilted in the heat, while the hosts and "hot weather teams" such as Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria in '94 and Senegal in 2002 excelled.
The 1994 final was played in sultry, mid-day Los Angeles and resulted in the only 0-0 final in the tourney's history. "We were playing at sea level but the midday heat that day was overpowering. The players were totally exhausted," said Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira afterwards.

Similarly, when England played Brazil at the 2002 World Cup, it didn't get off a shot against a 10-man Brazilian team for the final 30 minutes. In the humid heat of summer in the Far East, it couldn't adapt.
The same thing happened at Euro 2004 -- played in the June heat of Portugal. Warm weather nations such as Portugal and Greece had a distinct advantage and, in fact, met in the finals.
South Africa's winters are mild for the most part. But at altitude, at night, it can get into the 30's with a wind. It was enough to bother the Spanish last year at the Confederations Cup and for another warm weather country or two, it could be a slight disadvantage.
Altitude is likely to play a far more significant role. The World Cup has twice been played at higher elevations - both times in Mexico (1986 and 1970). In neither case were the results noticeably affected -- though mountainous Peru was a surprise quarter finalist in 1970.
But that may well not be the case this time. That's because the world game has gotten much faster and players run far more in 90 minutes than they did in the past. Today's players run more than 10 kilometers (or six miles) a game - the equivalent of an NBA player having to go up and down the floor 175 times, without time outs or substitutions of course. In Johannesburg where the oxygen level is about 20% less per breath than at sea level, that could make a huge difference.
Look at what happened at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (slightly higher elevation than Johannesburg). Performers in the endurance events suffered, while those participating in jumping or short sprints did noticeably better.
Moreover, as any Colorado Rockies or Denver Broncos fan knows, a ball carries differently at higher elevations - a bit farther and higher, while it also breaks less severely because of reduced wind resistance. That means that long shots, crosses, and set kicks will travel differently. According to a recent study, the ball will travel 5% faster. Expect lots of complaints from players and keepers about the way the ball is breaking (or not).
All in all, teams that play in Johannesburg and rely on ground possession - where the ball "does the work" so to speak - will tend to benefit. As BBC soccer analyst Tim Vickery has noted, the key "is to run as little as possible, keep the ball, and stay compact." (Brazil and Spain.) In contrast, teams that play a lot in the air and don't keep possession - forcing them to "chase the ball" - will suffer accordingly (England?). Remember, too, that teams that have to go up against physical sides in Johannesburg, or play extra time there, may take longer to recover, hurting them in subsequent matches. Teams that rely on pace - say Ivory Coast, Chile, and even the US - may find that advantage fade as games progress.
Moreover, the whole style of the tournament may change. Games at higher altitude can tend to be slower as they progress and, since players tend to make more mistakes the wearier they get, there may be some unexpected, dramatic developments late in games held in Johannesburg, Rustenberg, or Bloemfontein.

Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, site of the opening match and the final, is roughly a mile above sea level. (Courtesy --



Polokwane - almost a mile above sea level

Mexico vs. France (6/17): The Mexicans are far more accustomed to playing at altitude than the French. If the latter are looking for an excuse to fold, this will provide one.

Rustenberg - could be cool at night, almost a mile above sea level

England vs. U.S. (6/12): It will be evening and both teams could run out of gas towards the end, leading to mistakes.

Round of 16  -- Likely England vs. Serbia, Ghana, or Australia (6/26): Another night game and playing possession soccer will be key. Not England's forte.

Bloemfontein - likely to be the coldest stadium at night, also the 3rd highest in elevation

Greece vs. Nigeria (6/17): Greece is not a cold weather team. But the match is scheduled for late afternoon and Greece plays in a style well suited to altitude.

France vs. South Africa (6/22): France does play possession soccer but is it likelier to become unnerved above sea level? Late afternoon time keeps temperatures comfortable.

Round of 16 -- Likely U.S. vs. Germany or Serbia (6/27): Assuming the U.S. finishes 2nd in its group, here is where it will play. The weather is unlikely to be a factor in the late afternoon but its likely opponent plays more possession soccer than it does and that counts at altitude. Uh oh.

Johannesburg - has two stadiums and is about a mile above sea level. Can be cold at night. This is where the finals will be played.

Brazil vs. Ivory Coast (6/20): The altitude at the Soccer City Stadium, the main venue, is bound to have some affect and will probably benefit the team that can retain possession and strike on the counter. Advantage Brazil under the lights.

Round of 16 - Possible Argentina vs. South Africa (6/27): If Argentina wins its group (an if) and if South Africa can get out of its group and finish second (a bigger if), they'll meet at the Soccer City Stadium at night. A slight advantage for the South Africans, but will it be enough against a superior team?

Round of 16 - Likely Brazil vs. Chile or Switzerland (6/28): Assuming Brazil wins its group, it will likely face Chile or Switzerland in the Ellis Park stadium at night. A number of South American qualifiers are held at altitude so Brazil will be ready. But if, say, the Swiss are here, do they gain an edge they otherwise wouldn't have because of the cold and heights?

Quarterfinal - Possible Spain vs. Italy (7/3): Both teams seemed to suffer in the cold at last year's Confederations Cup but if the altitude and cold nighttime temperatures at the Ellis Park Stadium dictate a slower pace, that suits the Italians just fine.

The Final (7/11): The semis are being held near sea level so neither team will have much time to acclimate. A ball control, possession team will have an advantage at night. Look for mistakes at the end of halves when players tire.

 Steven and Harrison Stark are the co-authors of the recently published World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, from which this post is adapted. They are analyzing the World Cup for Real Clear Sports.

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