High-altitude soccer teams are more likely to win

AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images Last May, FIFA (the Federation of International Football Associations) prohibited international soccer matches from being played at more than 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level. The reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations were thought to put teams from low-altitude countries at a disadvantage. Now, a study published in the British Medical Journal supports ...

597201_mountain_soccer5.jpg
597201_mountain_soccer5.jpg

AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images

Last May, FIFA (the Federation of International Football Associations) prohibited international soccer matches from being played at more than 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level. The reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations were thought to put teams from low-altitude countries at a disadvantage.

Now, a study published in the British Medical Journal supports the ban's proponents. The scores and results from 1,460 international soccer matches played at varying elevations in 10 South American countries over the past 100 years were analyzed. After statistically controlling for differences in team ability, it found that not only did high-altitude teams have an advantage playing at high elevations, but they also had an advantage playing at low elevations.

AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images

Last May, FIFA (the Federation of International Football Associations) prohibited international soccer matches from being played at more than 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level. The reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations were thought to put teams from low-altitude countries at a disadvantage.

Now, a study published in the British Medical Journal supports the ban’s proponents. The scores and results from 1,460 international soccer matches played at varying elevations in 10 South American countries over the past 100 years were analyzed. After statistically controlling for differences in team ability, it found that not only did high-altitude teams have an advantage playing at high elevations, but they also had an advantage playing at low elevations.

The finding itself is not too surprising. After all, athletes often train at high elevations in order to gain an edge on the competition. But now, we can quantify that edge. The researchers found that for every 1,000 meters in elevation difference between two teams that played on the high-altitude team’s turf, the goal difference in a match increased by about half a goal in favor of the high-altitude team. Additionally, while the chances of the home team winning are 54 percent for teams from the same altitude, this number increases to 83 percent when the altitude difference is 3,695 meters (as in the case of high-elevation Bolivia as home team versus sea-level Brazil) and plummets to 21 percent when the difference is -3,695 meters (as in Brazil as home team versus Bolivia).

We shouldn’t feel too bad for the Brazilians, though—they’ve won four out of the past five Copa América tournaments. As for the Bolivians, their last championship was in 1963.

Preeti Aroon was copy chief at Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2016 and was an FP assistant editor from 2007 to 2009. Twitter: @pjaroonFP

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