the real fa cup

Ballon D’Air

Ballon D’Air

Seriously, why has this World Cup failed to ignite. We’ve had a few half decent games but, on the whole, and particularly at altitude, there have been passes going astray, control has been lacking, keepers have been fumbling and row Z has been employed so many times I’m wondering if the players are being paid to shoot so the second tier sponsors get more of a look in.


The teams to impress, relatively speaking, thus far have been Germany, Chile, South Korea, Mexico and Argentina. But why so few? Well, New Scientist ‘boffins’ reckon that above 300m the available oxygen reduces incrementally and over 500m it starts to become noticeable. The body needs oxygen to function and getting less of it means it don’t work so well.

Once you pass an elevation of 1000m a 14% performance drop can be expected and six of the venues are above this elevation, with most being considerably higher. Another stadium is at 700m and only three are at sea level so, in a high percentage of games, altitude will have a negative effect on physical and motor performance and it will reduce brain function, which can affect reaction times. The final point being relevant because, with reaction times reduced, the air pressure and density actually increase the speed of the ball and affect its flight so it moves quicker and at a different angle.

One of the key comments from the New Scientist is about the pace of the ball. Their calculations suggest that when struck from the edge of the area, as a player would normally strike it, the ball would reach the goalkeeper two ball widths sooner than they are used to. It’s not just keepers though, the strikers or long ball teams will have to hit the ball with less force for it to go the same distance and at the same angle of elevation, or perhaps even in a different arc. So long passes and shooting will have to be tempered and adjusted accordingly, which will take time.

This could be a recipe for some calamitous moments and we have already seen some keepers fumble, shots not dipping as soon as the striker would like and the regular sight of forlorn forwards pulling up short, knowing they won’t reach that long ball over the top of the defence. We have also seen some poor control of medium range passes, presumably because the ball has reached players sooner than they would normally expect.

The final point the eggheads make is not the altitude per se but the change in altitude. Players bodies will not be helped by moving from higher to lower altitude repeatedly, which is going to happen to every team at this tournament. So, while problematic this altitude issue is perhaps not unfair because eit will affect everyone.


Players from countries with grounds at altitude should come to terms with these factors more easily than others and teams that pass short and in a measured way will also benefit. Earlier I noted a few teams who, by common consensus, have turned in decent performances to date and, of those, Chile, Mexico and South Korea have a number of players who have played at altitude at least a little bit in recent times. Importantly, they are perhaps at least used to the transition between high and low altitudes over a period of time.

This experience is less the case with Argentina and Germany but they, on the whole, played with a range of short passing. Argentina though did have moments against Nigeria where they were not in control so it could well be that the technical gifts of their players are simply greater. Chile played well at altitude and, although they were the better side, the Hondurans coped quite well too, as they should do with a number of their players being used to altitude as well.

The opening game was a decent one and was played 1700m up at Soccer City in Johannesburg by the Mexicans and the home team. Both should be comfortable or used to playing at altiitude. South Korea played well at sea level, as did Germany. Both Chile and Honduras made a very decent fist of their game at 700m in Nelspruit, with the former perhaps coping better but mainly because they are a better side. Both teams do have players with altitude experience.

Argentina, though, also performed well, despite being 1.7km up in the clouds. This is slightly odd because their team included a lot of European based players who would not necessarily be used to playing at altitude, although a lot of them would have some experience due to the South American qualifying group having a lot of high national stadiums.

There is however, another factor and that is the new Jabulani ball. The ball is said to have a significantly reduced amount of drag due, Adidas claim, to being more perfectly spherical than any other ball in history. They claim it’s flight is truer, it’s weight is less and it will, therefore, travel further in less time – so with greater speed. Altitude, air pressure and density will accentuate the properties of this new ball. And, being a new ball, the vast majority of teams are not used to it.

The ball factor is maybe notable because, despite playing at sea level, the Bundesliga players in the German team, of which there are many, have been using this ball for a season. In this context, the short passing of the German’s game would appear appropriate and the power Lukas Podolski got behind the ball while still keeping it low all indicates they have become accustomed to it.


Similarly, while we noted that many of Argentina’s players were not necessarily used to playing at altitude, they have also had regular use of the Jabulani ball. It has to be said that while Mexico and Argentina had the better of their games, their opponents were not completely out of it and it is wort noting that both South Africa and Nigeria had experience of the Jabulani at the African Cup of Nations in January.

Another anomaly is that, despite conceding and failing to score, Spain actually played quite well against Switzerland without either scoring, winning or playing at altitude. However, it is notable that they controlled the game against much weaker opposition anyway by use of short passing. However, when it came to the final, longer ball or shot, they were as woeful as everyone else. Given the game was not played at altitude one must pose the question whether the ball was an issue?

While Germany managed the ball well, not at altitude, Australia were not used to the ball and were gulity of much longer, failed passing and shots they struggled to keep in the ground. Thanks to experience of the ball, Podolski’s goal in that game, therefore, seems less of an anomolay unless you look at the way it went in. It absolutely flew in, as if it were at altitude but Lukas new to keep the angle lower than everyone else. Also, Schwarzer appeared to react as he normally would yet the ball still arrived at him several ball diameters sooner than he was able to react to and flew off his hand and in.

So, the upshot is, playing at altitude affects physical and mental performance a little, the ball moves quicker in normal conditions, some games at altitude will accentuate that further and the constant change in altitude will affect players ability. In conclusion, it is to be expected that there will be more mistakes than usual, more shots not hitting the target, more goals borne out of mistakes and an overall package of poorer games that we will call a World Cup. We could say well done FIFA here, sarcastically, but we won’t, we’ll toddle off to Oddschecker, look at the upset bets and try to win some money.

New Scientist Article Here

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