Sunday, July 08, 2007

High Anxiety

If anyone wants to know how international football politics is played, just take a look at the recent fuss over playing at altitude.

Go back to late May, when the FIFA executive committee decided to ban international matches at altitudes over 8200 ft above sea level due to concerns about athletes' health. This decision caused a stir because it was directly aimed at four countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. Bolivia was particularly miffed because virtually their entire country is above 8200 ft; Ecuador and Peru both have the option to play at much lower elevations . Indeed, Peru has only recently twigged to the benefits of playing internationals in the rarefied air of Cuzco rather than Lima's sea-level climes.

Quite apart from the scientific merits of the decision, something smelled about the timing of the decision. FIFA had already announced that it would be holding a conference in late October to discuss this issue. So why jump the gun and pre-empt the conference?

Well, think for a moment about the timing. CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2010 World Cup starts on the 13th of October. The earliest the FIFA executive committee could possibly deal with the ramifications of the Zurich conference would be at its 24-25 November meeting, by which time 4 of the 18 qualification rounds would have been played. In two of those rounds, Brazil would have had to play at altitude (in Bogota on October 13 and Cuzco on November 17). Cui bono? A sele├žao, that's who.

Of course, when the Andean nations went ape-shit over the decision, there was unanimous tut-tutting from CONMEBOL, and all ten countries signed a petition protesting the decision. Hence the need for a certain amount of back-tracking. On June 27, FIFA's executive committee "confirmed the principle" of the 8200 ft ban while at the same time in practical terms raising the limit to 9,800 feet (this is sort of like Saddam Hussein "confirming the principle" of invading Kuwait by high-tailing it back to Basra, but whatever). This let Ecuador and Colombia off the hook, but Cuzco and Peru were still on the no-go list. Cue a visit to Zurich from Evo Morales, Bolivia's populist head of state who - and this is no joke - held several emergency cabinet meetings on the subject of the FIFA ban throughout the month of June.

Now, Morales is the kind of guy Blatter likes to buddy up to. Despite being a champagne-fed trougher himself, he owes his position to the votes of poor nations to whom he has in return funnelled the large sums of (largely European-generated) money from various tournaments. So as a guy who owes his career to his ability to suck up to poor nations, it ill-behooved him to be seen as being in conflict with such a right-on, fight-the-power guy as Morales. Hey Presto, on his own authority and with no decision from the executive committee, Blatter grants La Paz an exemption from the new rule.

So who's left holding the bag? Peru, of course. And that's exactly what the Brazilians wanted all along. They can put up with playing the Bolivians at altitude because - not to put too fine a point on it - the Bolivians suck. Peru is a different story, and unlike the Bolivians, their games at altitude are entirely voluntary.

Got all that? CONMEBOL is sufficiently in thrall to Brazil that it nudged and winked along a hasty and improper FIFA decision on health and safety grounds, but arranged the whole sequence of events to in such a way that it never seemed as if it were directed specifically at Peru. FIFA looked like the bad guy for awhile, but then got to back away from the decision gradually, winning plaudits along the way. And Blatter got a photo-op with a one of the world's hipper anti-imperialists to burnish his colonialist-bashing credentials.

The possibility that all this brouhaha was stage-managed so as to divert attention from the sacking of FIFA secretary-general Urs Linsi, a man who had angered corrupt CONCACAF leader Jack Warner by actually pursuing the allegations that Warner had improperly hijacked Trinidad's World Cup ticket allocation for his family's private gain, is of course completely ludicrous.


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