MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico is a long-shot to win the World Cup, though the country’s national team has one factor going for it that few others can match.
Many of its players have already acclimatized to playing at altitude, growing up at 7,400 feet in Mexico City or Guadalajara, which is located on a plateau at 5,000 feet.
So Mexico can take a no-worry attitude, basing much of its pre-World Cup training at a lowland camp in southern Germany before arriving in Johannesburg a week before June 11 opening game against host South Africa.
“If we can take advantage of (altitude), why not?” said Mexico midfielder Gerardo Torrado, who was born in Mexico City and is one of the team’s three captains. “We’ll take any favor we can get.”
South Africa isn’t the Himalayas, but five of the nine cites hosting matches are at altitudes that scientists describe as moderate, creating a challenge for many teams.
The sun sets over Soccer City Stadium in February with Johannesburg in the background (AP Photo).
Johannesburg is the highest at 5,900 feet and four others — Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Polowane and Rustenburg — are between 4,000 and 4,800 feet.
Three other host cities are at sea level — Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth — with Nelspruit at 2,200 feet. Playing in Cape Town one day and then a few days later in
Johannesburg could be tough.
That’s part of why there will be early training camps in South Africa for some teams, or
stints in the Alps to get ready.
“I wouldn’t say the altitude is a problem, but it’s definitely a factor,” said Pierre Barrieu,
a United States assistant coach who handles strength and conditioning.
The Americans got a breath of the thin air last year, playing in South Africa in the
Confederations Cup — upsetting Spain 2-0 before losing to Brazil 3-2 in the final in
“Having played there, you definitely can feel the effect,” Barrieu said.
FIFA and its chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak have said they expect few problems. Dvorak said in a recent interview that as few as three or four days would be sufficient to adjust. Others dispute that claim.
It’s very clear what can happen if players don’t have time to prepare.
The United States, for instance, has never won a game in Mexico. In 24 games, the Americans have lost 23 and a drawn one. Almost all of those matches were played without time to adjust to the altitude, arriving just a day or two before.
Teams from Major League Soccer are winless in 20 competitive games in Mexico with 18 losses and two draws.
And it’s no coincidence that Mexico has reached the quarterfinals twice in the World Cup, in 1970 and ’86 when the country hosted the tournament.
The thin air can also change the flight and speed of the ball. Curiously, for brief athletic
performances — say under 60 seconds — performance is improved in the less dense air.
A study done by Adidas shows that a free kick from 20 yards at a match in Johannesburg will reach the goal 5 percent faster than at sea level. This translates into a free kick traveling at an average speed of 78 mph at high altitude to 74 mph at sea level.
Though Mexico will arrive in Johannesburg just a week before its opener, most teams will take two or three weeks to acclimatize.
Five-time World Cup winner Brazil is set to arrive in Johannesburg on May 26, a full three weeks before its opening match on June 15. European champion Spain — the other favorite to win the World Cup — is expected to train for about 10 days in Austria near Innsbruck, where it plays South Korea in a friendly on June 5. The team returns to Spain for a friendly against Poland and arrives in South Africa on June 9.
“In my experience, a two-week acclimatization block works quite well for team sports and I guess I’d be hesitant to push it out much further,” said Randy Wilber, an exercise
physiologist with the United States Olympic Committee who is working with the U.S. team.
Wilber specializes in getting athletes adjusted to altitude, heat, humidity and even jet lag. The Americans will indeed arrive about two weeks before their first match on June 12.
In an ideal world, Wilber said teams might want three or four weeks, or a location that allows to train at sea level but sleep at altitude. But he cautioned about overdoing it, warning the psychological component was as important as the physiological.
Players have to be convinced the altitude will not be a problem, and they have to remain
“You may be doing the right things physiologically in terms of acclimatization, but you don’t want to go past the point where you lose psychological sharpness,” Wilber said. “I’ve seen athletes, half out of their minds with no social life being stuck on the side of a
United States captain Carlos Bocanegra said matches last year in South Africa, and experience playing in Mexico City, will help.
“You try to play at little bit smarter and be more clever with your runs and more tidy on the ball so you are not chasing down bad touches, losing possession and having your whole team have to chase more,” said Bocanegra, a defender who plays for Rennes in France. “You definitely need to go out there and be intelligent. You can’t run yourself into the ground in the first 15 minutes.”
Wilber acknowledged Mexico might have a slight advantage, but emphasized others can catch up with training and time.
“On paper without considering any other factor, I would have to say the answer to a team like Mexico is more yes than no,” Wilber said. “I would have to say it probably doesn’t hurt you.”