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Higher hopes for South America's World Cup players

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Tim Vickery | 09:11 UK time, Monday, 17 September 2012

World Cup qualification in Europe has a few good games along with plenty of mismatches. In South America, meanwhile, every game in the long campaign is resonant with rivalry and relevance.

The best development in the history of the continent's national teams was the birth of the Copa America in 1916 and its frequent, at times annual, staging in the early years. It did much to spread interest in the game and raise standards.

The second best was the inauguration in 1996 of the current World Cup qualification format, one big group with all 10 countries (in this case nine because as 2014 hosts Brazil have an automatic place) playing each other home and away.

Where previously there could be gaps of years between competitive games, for the last 17 years there has been a guaranteed calendar of regular meaningful matches. This has done wonders for the less traditional nations, and has led to a happy state of affairs where South American football has no minnows. No one is merely making up the numbers.

It makes the qualification campaign so dramatic that at the end of a round some people could do with an injection of oxygen.

And there is another reason for calling for oxygen - as an aid to combat the effects of altitude. Visits to Ecuador (where Quito is 2,800 metres above sea level) and especially Bolivia (where La Paz is 3,600 metres) are notoriously difficult for unacclimatised opponents, who lose a significant part of their athletic capacity in the rarefied air.

This is clearly not ideal. But home advantage is part of the game, and there seems to be no compelling evidence that altitude represents a significant health risk - extreme heat would appear to offer much more of a threat. Altitude, then, will continue to be part of the equation. Opponents have to plan for a trip to La Paz - an issue which will prove especially important in next month's two rounds.

Sergio Markarian talks to Peru international goalkeeper Diego Penny. Photo: Getty

Bolivia are at home in both. They have already drawn away to Argentina. But realistically the only chance they have of hauling themselves into contention for a World Cup slot is to win all their remaining matches in La Paz, starting with these two in October. They face opponents who are also desperate for points. First come Peru, still trailing the pack despite picking up four points in the two recent rounds. Then it is the turn of Uruguay, who earned just one point from this month's matches and dropped from second in the table to fourth.

Life now gets tough for the Uruguayans, who so far have played five games at home and only two away. Four days before the trip up the Andes to face Bolivia they travel to Argentina - possibly the two most challenging fixtures of the entire campaign, with a schedule that leaves next to no time to plan for the effects of altitude.

Uruguay's only option in Bolivia is to arrive in La Paz as close as possible to kick off time, play a cautious game, waste some time (the visiting goalkeeper usually picks up a yellow card in these matches) and hope one of their strikers can nick a goal on the counter-attack.

Peru, meanwhile, should be capable of something a bit more ambitious. Lima, the country's capital where most of the major clubs are based, is at sea level. But Peru also has a mountainous region, with clubs based at altitudes similar to that of La Paz. For this game, national team coach Sergio Markarian can call on a group of players already acclimatised to the conditions, and he will start working with them in the next few days.

Cienciano of Cuzco supply the vastly experienced centre back Santiago Acasiete, recently back from Spain, and the impressive central midfielder Edwin Retamoso. Newly promoted neighbours Real Garcilaso have a striker in fine form, the gloriously named Andy Pando. And another altitude outfit, Sport Huancayo, have a competent goalkeeper in Joel Pinto - the star of the show recently when Huancayo won a surprise 1-0 win away to Nolberto Solano's Universitario, for whom English goalkeeper Mark Cook was making his debut.

The extra speed of the ball through the rarefied air makes altitude especially challenging for unacclimatised keepers, and so the presence of Pinto could be significant.

Down the spine of his side, Markarian has the option of selecting altitude specialists for the trip to Bolivia. Presumably he will revert to his normal line up for the away game against Paraguay four days later. That, of course, is if injuries allow him to do so.

At full strength Peru can call on an impressive array of attacking power - centre forward Paolo Guerrero with Claudio Pizarro operating behind him, Jefferson Farfan marauding down the right and Juan Manuel Vargas rampaging down the left. But in recent rounds at least one of the quartet has always been absent or clearly short of full fitness. With them all firing together Peru still have an outside chance of qualifying for their first World Cup since 1982. But they must start picking up points away from home.

Peru have become a notoriously soft touch on their travels. In a run stretching across more than seven years, they have managed to lose all of their last 16 away World Cup qualifiers, scoring 8 and conceding 48.

So if the venue is high up in the Andes when they meet Bolivia next month, the stakes are higher still. Neither side can afford to lose.

Bolivia need all six points from their two home games. Peru will probably be happy with four from their two away fixtures. And if they can go back to Lima with a maximum six points then never mind oxygen - they will be floating higher than a helium balloon.

Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;

Why did Uruguay's Gaston Ramirez join Southampton? He was linked with everyone big and as a Saints fan I can't really work out how we managed to get him. Will he be a success in the Premier League?

I suppose it's a tribute to the strength in depth of the Premier League that a much-touted talent is willing to join a newly promoted club - one of the things that makes this such a fascinating move.

A club in Southampton's position have little margin for error with major signings. After paying out big they really need a new acquisition to produce - as soon as possible.

I hope Ramirez will be able to do that, but there is clearly a risk involved. He has a wonderful left foot, but he is not especially quick, and those long legs mean that he lacks speed off the mark. Can he find space to impose himself on frenetic English midfields?

There were some promising signs in the recent World Cup qualifiers. Uruguay did not do well, but in the half hour he played against Colombia and the full 90 against Ecuador Ramirez produced his best international displays in the two years he has been hanging around the squad. There was less of the 'little boy lost' about him. He looked like he felt he belonged.

Against Ecuador, Uruguay ended up dropping him back a few metres in the hope that he could get good service into the box from deep. It was an interesting variation - something that was also tried in the Olympics - but it can leave exposed his lack of defensive aptitude.


  • Comment number 1.

    Another interesting piece, as always Tim-boy.

    I was wondering how Alvaro Recoba was getting on? Last I heard he was with Nacional? Is this still the case?


  • Comment number 2.

    Tim, as usual this is great reading. I am impressed by your wide knowledge of South American football. How do you manage it? Brazil, where you live is huge, Argentina is not small and there are at least 10 footballing countries. I guess that you watch a lot of television, because travelling regularly to all these countries from penguins to papaya (and more) would be hugely difficult, if not impossible.
    As A Brazilian Portuguese speaker, you presumably understand something of South American Spanish as well.
    I am particularly interested in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay where I have many friends. Peru and Colombia are countries which I do not know but where I have many friends. can you or other bloggers here recommend sites for South American football. I read, speak and write Spanish fluently, so language would not be a problem.

  • Comment number 3.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 6.

    Another great article Tim, always enjoy reading your piece.

    Would be interested to hear your views on Venezualas bid if i remember correctly they are the only team in South America not to qualify for the World cup yet. I remember they had a great Copa Last year and alot was expected of them. i think they are sixth at the moment and having a look at the fixtures they have to play a trip to Argentina and Boliva(which will mean trip to higher ground).

    Also in relation to Ramirez i was discussing this with a saints fan who tended to agree that maybe he was using Southampton as a stepping stone to get used to the English/European game.

  • Comment number 7.

    Incidentally, I'm not sure that I agree with Tim that Uruguay should approach their away double-header in Argentina and Bolivia by arriving in La Paz at extreme altitude at the last minute. I've put forward an alternative suggestion elsewhere online, and here it is.......

    I think they need to ask themselves where they are most likely to pick up three points, which surely must be La Paz in Bolivia.

    All the players are released by their clubs no later than Sunday, with the Argentina match on the Friday night and the Bolivia game the following Tuesday.

    Now, Uruguay has by my reckoning a number of internationals currently plying their trade in South America: the defenders Fucile and Victorino and Rolin and Scotti, the midfielder Lodeiro and the strikers Forlan and Abreu. Why not send them straight to La Paz on the Sunday, nine days before the Bolivia match, and let them acclimatise there as long as possible without going to Argentina to get beaten? These six players can then be the legs of the team for the first half in La Paz, along with five players who would arrive at the last minute from Argentina and who would be rotated during the course of the match?

    It's not long enough to affect red blood cell mass and haemoglobin mass. But nine days is enough for the players' respiratory rate at altitude to substantially adapt.

    There is an article by GP Nassis about this, and you can read the abstract online if you google "Effect of altitude on football performance: analysis of the 2010 FIFA World Cup data". Obviously the altitudes were lower, but the key take-home message is that "several days" of acclimatisation is better than nothing.

  • Comment number 8.

    Additionally, those of us who remember Scotland's majestic march through the 1978 World Cup should be aware that Mendoza (where they beat Holland 3-2 with Archie Gemmill's wondergoal) is itself at 2,500 feet of altitude.

    And that is where Uruguay will play against Argentina four days before they take on Bolivia in La Paz.

    This will mean that Uruguay are slightly acclimatised anyway to altitude even before they get to Bolivia, although there is a big difference between 760 m and 3,600m. And it will also mean that Messi and co - who themselves will be freshly arrived from Europe - will not be able to assault Uruguay with the same high-octane style with which Colombia recently overpowered them in Barranquilla.

    I really don't understand why Argentina has chosen to play this game in Mendoza. It disadvantages and inconveniences their own players to get there just as much as it inconveniences Uruguay. And it gives Uruguay's players a gently graded increase in altitude to prepare them for the trip to La Paz four days later.

  • Comment number 9.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 10.

    sergio martinez - legend, nobody is better then maravilla

  • Comment number 11.

    I am increasingly upbeat about Gaston Ramirez' prospects in the Premiership.

    At the Olympics he looked slow of movement and response against quicker opponents (UAE) and physically bigger and stronger opponents (Senegal), while against Team GB he ended up not as a "Number 10" attacking playmaker but more as deep-lying one in the Pirlo vein. In all three games it was obvious that he did not relish the physical side of the game, although his set-pieces were world class.

    But against Colombia and especially Ecuador he was quicker to the ball in open play, got his foot in when he needed to and he was significantly more creative. This carried on in his 45 minutes against Arsenal on Saturday, where he livened the team up and played one sumptuous angled ball across the box.

    He is clearly a gifted passer and free-kick taker, but he's not blessed with any pace. At only 21 he can determine whether he becomes a David Silva-like figure.

  • Comment number 12.


    I can't see him in a David Silva-like role.
    You rarely get guys over 6ft than can move the way a smaller player can I.E Silva, Pirlo, Iniesta, Xavi.
    I can see him more of a Yaya Toure-like figure (keeping with the Man City links) big, powerful, but can still move and pass the ball like a genius. Obviously as you say, he doesn't like the more physical side of the game, but I'm sure he will get used to it playing in the premier league.
    Good luck to him, can't see him staying at Southampton long.

  • Comment number 13.

    Why this debate about attitude continues when the geographies of the world are not uniform? Is that an attempt do favors for Brazil and Argentina (because the talk gets hot when these two lose to Peru, Bolivia or Paraguay). The hot thick air of the Brazilian coast is equally not favorable for those from the Andes as are the humid forests of Colombia and Venezuela.

  • Comment number 14.

    @13 MonroviaGunner
    I think that Tim's point is that South America already has a qualifying field in which every team other than Bolivia is evenly matched, and even Bolivia are a nightmare proposition at home because of the extreme altitude.

    An altitude of 5000 feet - as in South Africa - already poses a challenge. 10,000 feet like in Quito in Ecuador is not so much a challenge as torture. 12,000 feet like at La Paz creates an environment where a team of League One quality (Bolivia) is so strongly at a physiological advantage that four years ago they beat Argentina 6-1.

    When Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay and Venezuela play one another the only significant home advantage is the crowd. But Ecuador and Bolivia get massive assistance from the altitude, and Colombia get massive assistance in Barranquilla from the heat and humidity.

  • Comment number 15.

    At 11:39 17th Sep 2012, yakubusdiet wrote:

    I am increasingly upbeat about Gaston Ramirez' prospects in the Premiership.

    Based on what exactly? He has hardly been on the pitch for Southampton so far this season.

  • Comment number 16.

    @8 yakubusdiet

    I don't think that the altitude at the Argentina vs Uruguay match will have much of an effect. I think Madrid is about 600m above sea level and you don't hear people saying Barca are going to have to prepare for altitude when they play Madrid.

  • Comment number 17.

    Still a bit odd that Ramirez agreed to go to Southampton. Obviously trying to put himself in the shop window for a bigger club. But his lack of pace could be his downfall.

  • Comment number 18.

    Good stuff Tim. I don't think people should be as dismissive of Bolivia as some of the responses suggest - they were about 10 minutes away from beating Argentina at the Copa and very impressive in that game I felt. Although no sign of a Marco Etcheverry unfortunately!

    There is no doubt that Venezuela are a team to be feared with the firepower they have up front. Farfan in particular, on his day, can be practically unplayable, and it says a lot that Pizarro is back at Munich again. I don't know what has happened to Vargas, quite tremendous when on his game but I assume injuries have played their part. Always thought Guerrero's attitude was a bit suspect in Germany but again, a very good finisher. Seem to have a good manager as well now, maybe they can take advantage of Uruguay's struggles and make a good first of qualifying.

    Southampton would surely be better to use Ramirez a bit higher up the pitch than he played at the Olympics, I really don't think he will thrive in a withdrawn role in the Premiership at this type of club.

  • Comment number 19.

    I am an English man based in Lima and watching Peru against Argentina in their last qualifying game, at Peru's national stadium, was an awesome experience. Argentina were poor. Peru were excellent. Why did we (being a Peru fan) only get a 1-1 draw? Pizarro was the worse player on the pitch, missed a penalty and other chances and didn't do much else. The rest of the team played excellent passing football and Farfan was outstanding - the best game I ever saw him play. It was refreshing to see Peru play this well against such oponents but as is often the case, we lacked that final finishing touch. I doubt will make the World Cup, but we are a nation of faith and hope and if they can play like that each time they have a qualifier, they may just have a chance yet.

  • Comment number 20.

    After the latest round of matches there is little separating the top 6 teams although Venezuela have played an extra match. With their win against Chile it looks like Colombia are in a really strong position to qualify.

  • Comment number 21.

    No idea why I am referring to Peru as Venezuela @18! D'oh.

  • Comment number 22.

    Can you see a situation in the future where one of the big two (Argentina and Brazil) fail to qualify for a world cup due to the level of competition? I can see any of the other 8 qualifying these days, especially as players like Antonio Valencia and Falcao from 'smaller' nations begin to truly settle in in European football.

  • Comment number 23.


    Can you see a situation in the future where one of the big two (Argentina and Brazil)
    fail to qualify for a world cup due to the level of competition

    An interesting point. Certainly nowdays, that would be a disaster for FIFA if one or god forbid both, ever failed to make it to a WC in the future.

    If the situation ever did occur, i presume steps would be taken by FIFA to ensure that it did not happen again.

  • Comment number 24.

    I cannot stress strongly enough the altitude effect here in Quito.

    The first two weeks I was here i was blowing out of my axxe just going for a pint of milk. Some of those hills are brutal, especially if your are past your prime fitness like me.

    It must require an extra 10% for visiting players. Sometimes it seems like an unfair advantage but i suppose these extra benefits can be reversed in coastal cities and southern based countries.

    The heat can be unbearable as well. This weekend i was at an Ecuaorian Serie A double header, one game after the other for $10. Midway into the the 2nd game (Independiente vs Barcelona) I had to seek shelter then eventually pack up and go home. The heat was unbearable not only because you are on the Equator but also so much closer to the sun.

    When I got home my arms were scorched red and this was even with a liberal coating of sunblock.

    I think the CONMEBOL qualification group is going to go all the way with at least 7 teams vying for the 5 places up for grabs(5th place gets a play-off versus an Asian team..hhmmmm)

    Colombia look to have hit form in the last two games after a poor result against Ecuador.
    Argentina were far from impressive versus Peru.

    Uruguay have begun to wobble and were lucky against Ecuador to get 3 points. The non-penalty decision against Christain Benitez was unbelievable but then again so was the Saritama award versus Bolivia.

    Venezuela are my dark horses for at least the 4rth spot. They have a solid base of European based players and look to have continued their Copa America form.

    I think Paraguay and Bolivia are going to find it hard to get into contention now but the rest of the teams should be there, all the way to the end.

    As i mentioned before i paid $10 for two matches at the weekend in Quito.

    It just shows how much we are ripped off in the UK. I know saftey standards in the UK are far above the majority of the stadiums in South America but the standard of football is not.

    I paid $25 for Ecaudor vs Colombia then again for Ecuador vs Bolivia. Although they were not the smartest of matches and feel i'd been ripped off like the majority of the Tartan Army lask.

    In these frugal times and on the edge of a double dip recession it seems like Football keeps on becoming more and more expensive in the UK.

  • Comment number 25.

    @14 yakubusdiet
    "When Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay and Venezuela play one another the only significant home advantage is the crowd. But Ecuador and Bolivia get massive assistance from the altitude, and Colombia get massive assistance in Barranquilla from the heat and humidity"

    You re-echoed my point. That is the geography of each country.

  • Comment number 26.

    Almost every country in South America has either high altitude or sweltering tropical heat and humidity and almost all have both, so there is hardly any point in arguing that one country has an advantage over the others. They choose to play where they get the most advantage and the most passionate crowds, but with the building of just one or two stadiums, an entire qualifying run could be done with all teams at altitude or in sweltering heat and humidity.
    Colombia can play in Bogotá, Argentina can play in Salta (like the Pumas do in rugby), or up in the tropical north. Ecuador could play in Guayaquil, Chile could go up to San Pedro, Bolivia come down to Santa Cruz. No can say that Venezuela doesn't have cities as hot and humid as Barranquilla, and there are high plains too.
    So in reality no-one is at a disadvantage and the qualifiers are the gruelling but fair league system that they should be. It is the only world cup qualifying system that guarantees that all the finalists will be battle hardened and have played in almost all possible playing conditions, over the space of 3 years. So half the continent may qualify, which may not seem fair, but they put up a fight and last time had 4 out of 5 finalists in the QF. Pretty good effort. I expect even greater progress in 2014. Viva Colombia!

  • Comment number 27.

    @24 ali mclauchlan

    An interesting post. Is there a reason why they play matches in the heat of the day in Ecuador? Would it not be more comfortable for players and spectators alike to have matches starting in the late afternoon/early evening?

  • Comment number 28.


    Great blog, as always!! I am always interested when British footballers move abroad; the trend has steadily decreased, whether this is because of the riches and comfort associated with life in our upper leagues or a the issue of the players not wanting to branch out after being pampered and prepared for the top since a young age I am unsure. I digress!

    The recent transfer of Mark Cook from Harrogate to “La U” has fascinated me and I would love to hear your insight into this. I see he made his debut recently and was slightly shaky from what I saw online but the goal was decent and he could do little about it. Universitario are a large club and have a huge stadium, although they have been struggling, what has been the reaction to his arrival in South America and how do you feel he will adapt? Apart from the normal problems associated with moving abroad, does Lima/Peru pose any particular issues?

  • Comment number 29.


    I was wondering what was the logic of Colombia not playing its home games in Bogota, a city almost as elevated as Quito. It seems like, even going back to previous World Cup qualifying campaigns, they have always switched cities continually. Last World Cup Colombia played a lot of games in Medellin, this time around all of their games are in Barranquilla. It makes me wonder why they do not use the advantage they have of playing in the thin air of Bogota.

    Though I admit, I am estatic with their overall play recently.

  • Comment number 30.

    @27 BaggiosPonytail

    I have no idea why the Ecuadorian football association play their games so early.

    Other games are played a lot later (Peru vs Argentina). I t does the fans no favours at all nor the players.

  • Comment number 31.

    at the new st georges centre of excellence where future england players will be developed they have an altitude chamber for this every reason to make sure the players can play at altitude or in heat.

    gaston rameriz could be the new matt le tissier.

  • Comment number 32.

    29 - Bogota has never worked for Colombia, and they've tried it many times - it never seems that the altitude makes much of a difference (at 2,600 it's lower than Quito).
    When Colombia have qualfied, it's been with Barranquilla as their base

  • Comment number 33.

    24 - I've only been to Quito once, and it was over 10 years ago - I was there (on the pitch behind the goal as it happens) when Ecuador sealed qualification for their first World Cup - this is late 2001.
    I can honestly say I felt no effect of the altitude at all - and i wandered around for hours, climbed hills, etc. Also found it a bit chilly!

  • Comment number 34.

    Tim Oh! Tim

    I can honestly say I felt no effect of the altitude at all - and i wandered around for hours, climbed hills, etc. Also found it a bit chilly!

    ha ha ..........That's what i call misleading us all, on the pitch yep behind the goal. So you were not exactly running 7 or 8 miles in a match, with energy sapping runs, lungs burning. Not that i wish that upon you.

    Anyway it is amazing what a few beers will do to rejuvenate the human body.

    Seriously, there have been many studies done on altitude and the effect. Even those born at altitude, the native population [not you or I] have greater lung capacity throughout their lives and certainly endure extreme excersice better than us mortals born a sea level.

    Quito is at the high altitude level, nothing dangerous of course, just exhausting but it has an effect on the body of those not use to it. I believe it is when you get to the next level approaching 4000 mtrs when it really kicks in and effects us sea level dwellers constantly.

  • Comment number 35.

    ed allen @31

    If they have an altitude chamber at the new st Georges complex, it will not be for acclimatisation.

    It is used as a health aid ie blood conversion but there is no substitute for high altitude training and the effects of such training wears off fairly quickly when the athlete returns to sea level.

  • Comment number 36.


    Is there any subject out there that you are not actually 'all knowing' on?

  • Comment number 37.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 38.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 39.


    I recall something about Charlie Mitten going to Colombia ( and getting into some strife with the FA about it ). A player called Charlie in Colombia,eh?

    Good call on Brazil. There's oil out there and soon they may not be haemorraging players to Europe.

  • Comment number 40.

    24 & 33 - I'd have to agree with Tim on Quito. I was there a couple of times and while of course there are effects of altitude, it is nothing like the more extreme levels of La Paz, where it is extremely noticeable when just walking around the city. Though I suppose that these things affect people differently and I had been living at 2,000 m for the previous few months.

    34 - I think that Tim's catalogue of articles on the effects of altitude (including this one!!!) have already established that he knows it makes a difference. Without wishing to put words in his mouth I think he was pointing out that Quito is not quite as extreme as the previous poster made out.

  • Comment number 41.

    The point about altitude is that it doesn't have the same effect on everyone - it seems impossible to predict who will feel it most.
    But no doubt at all that it makes a difference - a huge one once you get up to La Paz.

  • Comment number 42.

    and then in the 90s colombian clubs started paying big wages and buying major south american (if not global) players again when they had the narco wealth. In this case it was Atletico Nacional (owned by Don Pablo) and one of the Cali clubs, if I remember correctly the documentary Los Dos Escobar.
    @40 after two months you are acclimatised, even after one, so that's why Quito didn't feel too bad. I didn't find La Paz or Cusco particularly difficult, because I was acclimatised. I went down to sea level and then went back up to Quito but had no problem jogging up the 4 floors to the dorm of my hostel. Only Potosi gave me headaches cos it's over 4000m and you don't get any respite. But when my friend came from the UK directly to Cusco three days before the Inca Trail departure, he couldn't breathe even at night when lying in bed. Not ideal if you have to go out and play an international football match. All the european based players live at sea level or near enough.

  • Comment number 43.

    A lot of different factors may contribute to the altitude effect. It's more the combination of factors. After the first couple of weeks here i was ok , especially when i had the carrot of a ciggie at the top of the hill to look forward to..

    I couldn't imagine running about in this air with the blazing 4pm sun on my head though. I 've done a couple of circuits of the big park here and it was tough.

    I climbed up to the refuge on Cotopaxi a couple of months ago. It was only a mile and i had a stomach full of coca tea in me and it still took over an hour. A truly shattering experience.


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