Image: Shine 2010-2010 world cup good news

For those of you who are football fans, many of the results from the group stages of the World Cup such as past winners Italy and France exiting from the competition at this early stage will have come as a surprise.  Other countries (including England) have not lived up to the promise of the qualifying matches.  For those of you who couldn’t care less – maybe you could be persuaded to ponder if the reason is scientific.

Even if you are not a fan, you will know that the tournament is being held in South Africa, and many of the grounds there are at a high elevation.  Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban, three of the nine venues being used are at sea level, but the six others are at high altitude.

Johannesburg is the highest venue (1765m above sea level), followed by Nelspruit (1741 metres), Rustenburg (1500 metres), Blomfontein (1400 metres), Pretoria (1370 metres) and Polokwane (1312 metres).  Could this be the reason why so many players are struggling to shine?

I was interested to see if there was a link between the height of the different countries and how well they did in the group stages.  Surely players that came from very low-lying areas of the world were at a disadvantage in this World Cup?  The data I gathered is supplied in this Excel spreadsheet.  The first column shows the height of the tallest point in the country (I reasoned that countries with the highest point would overall be the highest), the second column is the number of points they earned in the group stage.

Students could be given this table and draw a scatter graph from the data to see if there is any correlation.  As you can see from the graph in the image, the trend looks disappointingly inconclusive, but getting students to do this exercise is a great way of practising their graph drawing skills and looking at the relationships between variables.  They could also have a discussion on possible flaws in this study.  Did some countries undertake altitude training before the tournament (The Netherlands did extensively, and it looks like it paid off), maybe some players from low-lying countries play in teams in higher countries?

Even if this link is not apparent in the data, playing at a high altitude has been affecting some players.  The higher the altitude, the lower the air pressure and this means that the air is less dense – and the decrease in amount of oxygen available can have a physiological impact on the players.

How this affects the body can be highlighted in a KS4/5 lesson on oxygen uptake.  At these high altitudes, the maximum amount of oxygen that is supplied to the muscles of the players (VO2 max) during the game will be less than at sea level.  Students can explore what impact this would have on the players muscles, and how this would be a problem whilst exercising.  For KS5 students, a much more in depth discussion on the affects of low air pressure on oxygen saturation of haemoglobin can be started using this as an example.

You could also talk about the reasons why some teams have been training at higher altitudes – see this website for more information for how altitude training works.   It seems to do the trick – Jermaine Defoe who scored the vital goal for England on Wednesday match sleeps in an altitude chamber.

You could also use this in a physics lesson.  A lower density of air will have an effect on how quickly the ball travels through the air.  The predictability of how it will move will also be affected.  Students can be encouraged to explain why the ball is faster using ideas about particles and forces.  They could also draw force diagrams to show the difference in the size of the forces when a ball travels through the air at sea level and at some of the higher grounds in South Africa.

Now, let’s hope that science can deliver and that Argentina’s high altitude helps them to smash Germany in the quarter-finals on Saturday – no hard feelings!

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