Ok, maybe not quite, but football at 13,000 feet ain't easy....
At 4,090 metres (over 13,000 feet) above sea level, perched high in the Andes Mountains lies a town that has endured a history like perhaps no other. It once was a major source of wealth for a vast Spanish, boasting enormous silver deposits beneath the earth. It’s decline has been dramatic however and nowadays it is a desperately poor place where men and teenage boys are often forced to risk life and limb daily in the dangerous mines just to feed their families.
Welcome to Potosi, Bolivia.
It’s hardly a place where you’d expect football or anything else for that matter to flourish but the city is in fact home to two of the twelve teams in the Bolivian top flight. Real Potosi, the more successful of the two are enjoying something of a golden era and over the past decade have been fairly regular challengers for honours. Both they and rivals Nacional play at the Victor Agustin Ugarte, a modest stadium that can house around 30,000 people but is rarely full. As you might expect in what is officially the highest city on the planet, altitude is something of an issue.
To the average man, a mere leisurely stroll uphill here can leave you seriously short of breath, so 90 minutes of football can certainly take its toll on the lungs. It’s an issue in various parts of South America and teams based in the Andes region regularly use it to their advantage when taking on opponents from lower lying areas. Their players are certainly more used to the challenge that playing sport at altitude presents and there is even evidence to suggest that Andean people have evolved to have greater lung capacities than people in other regions.
Either way, in football results often speak for themselves and it doesn’t take a statistical genius to understand that altitude has a big impact in this part of the world. Quito in Ecuador and the Bolivian capital La Paz are regularly the scene of embarrassing defeats for the Brazilian and Argentine national teams and altitude is invariably the excuse. It’s often even more of a factor in the Copa Libertadores where the midweek nature of the games leaves visiting teams with often only a couple of days to acclimatise.
Given all this, it’s probably fair to say that few of South America’s glamour clubs were overly pleased to see Real Potosi qualify for the 2012 Copa Libertadores. This week the club host Flamengo of Brazil in the first leg of a tie that will result in one of the two progressing to the group stage of the continent’s biggest competition.
The Bolivian’s have made five previous appearances in the Libertadores all coming over the last decade. The contrast between their home and away performance is vast. At home they have only suffered three defeats and have achieved standout results such as the 6-1 demolition of Uruguay’s Penarol in 2002 and a 5-1 triumph over Brazil’s Cruzeiro four years ago. However their eleven games outside Bolivia have seen them avoid defeat only once, a 1-1 draw against unfancied Union Maracaibo of Venezuela. In their most recent outing a couple of years ago, at this stage they held Brazil’s Cruzeiro to a 1-1 draw in Potosi but were thumped 7-0 a week later in Belo Horizonte. Clearly a positive home result is of vital importance if Real Potosi are to have any chance of overcoming a Flamengo side captained by Brazilian legend Ronaldinho.
The Rio de Janeiro club are more aware than most about what an away day in Potosi is like. Despite Potosi being about as far away from the tropical weather and beaches of Rio as you can possibly imagine these two clubs have history. Five years ago in the same competition and same stadium as they meet this week, the two played out what is probably the most significant match in the history of the football at altitude debate.
On a cold, wet Potosi evening in mid February 2007, Flamengo were in town for the opening match of the group stages. The Brazilian players had had little time to acclimatise to the conditions and quickly fell 2-0 behind. Although they fought back in the second half, many visiting players resorted to using bottled oxygen to cope with the altitude problems. The game ended in a 2-2 draw but the almost farcical sight of players needing oxygen to complete a game of football meant the fall-out would continue for well over a year.
Flamengo claimed their player’s health had been put at serious risk and vowed to refuse to play any future Copa Libertadores matches at altitude. They were subsequently supported by other Brazilian clubs and by May FIFA had effectively imposed a ban on all international matches, including those in the Copa Libertadores being played higher than 2,500 metres above sea level. The official ruling stated that games could be played but only if the visiting players had spent at least a week acclimatising to the conditions, something that was in practice impossible given the already packed football calendar. This in effect prevented numerous clubs across mountainous Latin America and three national sides (Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia) from playing in their home stadia.
The likes of Bolivian president Evo Morales and even Diego Maradona led a strong campaign against the ban. It was Bolivia that was hardest hit and Morales somewhat dramatically described the ruling as ‘a football apartheid’. This may have seemed a bit over the top but when you consider almost all Bolivia’s major cities were located above the cut-off line, he certainly had a point.
The campaign against the ban was ultimately successful as every South American football confederation with the exception of Brazil agreed to ignore the time restrictions. The FIFA ruling was eventually overturned just over 12 months later and the 2010 World Cup Qualifiers took place as normal in the capital cities of the affected nations. As it happened, none of the countries who were supposed to benefit from playing at altitude qualified and to some extent this has led to the debate disappearing from the headlines.
With Real Potosi and Flamengo meeting again however, much of the talk in the build-up to the clash has inevitably been about altitude and the somewhat infamous clash five years ago. While the Bolivians are clear underdogs, shock results do happen on a fairly regular basis in this competition and if they were to win, there’s little doubt the issue would resurface again in the Brazilian media at the very least.
While it may not be this year, it is perfectly plausible that at some point Real could progress as far as the knock-out stages. This would take us towards the South American winter where temperatures that drop well below freezing in the Andes would make Potosi an even more difficult place to visit. That situation may have to wait a while but there’ll be more than a few interested observers as Ronaldinho and company line-up, with or without oxygen supplies for this week’s Copa Libertadores clash.