For those soccer fans who have been following the recent World Cup qualifying in South America (Conmebol) the choice of venues by some home teams is questionable and worth examining.
Under the rules of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA-world governing body of soccer) the choice of venue is solely within the discretion of the home team. In Conmebol each team plays two matches against all of the others, one at home and the other away. In other words each team plays 8 games at home and 8 away.
In Conmebol home advantage has always been a factor that affects the outcome of matches. But in the recently concluded tournament the results clearly show that in their home games Colombia and Ecuador had an unfair advantage (see Goal International).
In the case of Colombia, it played its home matches in Barranquilla, a high humidity city on the Caribbean coast. The relative humidity in Barranquilla can go as high as 97%. To add to the difficulty it played the games in the afternoons. However, it allowed water breaks during games (similar to cricket in the West Indies) except that such intervals in international soccer are very rare. But despite these unscheduled stops it is extremely difficult for visiting teams to play in the extreme conditions.
The policy worked very well. With the competition now completed (except for the play offs for Uruguay), Colombia finished in second place two points behind winners Argentina. Out of a total of 8 home games Colombia won 5 and only lost 1. In contrast it won 4 away games and lost 3. In September 2012 it beat South American champions Uruguay 4 to 0 and in October it beat Paraguay, the runners up in the South American championship 2 to 0. At the end of each game the visitors were so exhausted that they looked like a broken army.
Another case in point is Ecuador. Here home games were played in Quito which is 9,350 feet above sea level and is the highest capital city in the world. Again the policy of taking full advantage of local conditions has been very successful as Ecuador has qualified by finishing in fourth place. It was successful because out of a total of 8 home games it won 7 and lost none which is in stark contrast to its away form in which it won none and lost 5. The importance to Ecuador of home advantage was expressed by its Manager Reinaldo Rueda during the tournament when he said “we’re all aware that if we can keep winning in Quito, we’ll be close to our objective… to reach the World Cup” (FIFA. com, October 10, 2012). Mathematically he was right.
A different situation arises in the case of Peru. It plays its home games in the capital Lima although it has other cities like Cusco which lie in the Andes and would be a nightmare for visiting teams. One could argue that Peru is not using its home advantage and that is why it has not qualified for the World Cup since 1982. Peru finished third from the bottom of the qualifying table having won only 4 home games although it has a very good team. It placed third in the Conmebol championship in 2011. But unlike Colombia and Ecuador in Peru it seems that the love of money trumps the desire to qualify for the World Cup.
If you are not accustomed to altitude it is very difficult to breathe let alone play soccer because the air is so thin. Over the years teams in Conmebol have devised ways to overcome the problem. Brasil tried landing their players near the border of the country they were visiting and then a couple of hours before the game transporting them by helicopter to the stadium. Argentina has tried giving their team coca leaves to chew on as this can overcome altitude sickness and recently Peru tried picking only players who play for clubs located at altitude. None of these measures seemed to have worked so FIFA decided to act.
Because of the unfair advantage to home teams, and following reports of possible harmful effects of altitude on health, in 2007 FIFA introduced a ban on playing games at altitudes above 2500 feet which ruled out cities like Quito and La Paz in Bolivia. But the countries affected particularly Bolivia, backed by Diego Maradona (the then Manager of Argentina) and Brasil strongly protested and in 2008 FIFA relented and lifted the ban calling for more studies on the effects of humidity and altitude on health. So the problem continues.
Home field advantage is a part of the game but how much of it should be allowed? The altitude controversy has gone on for a long time with good arguments for and against. What is not in question is that altitude does give an unfair home advantage and distorts competitions.
In the meantime natural law will intervene and restore some balance as Colombia and Ecuador will discover in 2014 when they realize that they can’t take the humidity or the altitude to the World Cup.
Victor A. Dixon
October 13, 2012
Revised October 20, 2013