The 2014 World Cup will result in the greatest collective travel and climate demands on the participants since the United States hosted in 1994. The venues stretch from Manaus in the Amazon basin, to several cities on the North and Northeast Coast (Recife, Fortaleza, and Natal) to Curitiba and Porto Alegre (the only venue at the 30th parallel) in the south, closest to Uruguay and Argentina. Most of the teams opted to set up their base camps near Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, in the southern portion of the country.
TEAM USA WILL BE THE MOST FREQUENT FLYERS
The United States Men’s National Team–and the fans that will follow–will rack up the frequent flyer miles in Brazil over the next two weeks. The United States would have had the longest travel of the 32 teams anyway–once they were designated as one of the eight teams to play in Manaus (against Portugal) that was a possibility–but with a home base in Sao Paulo in between games, they will be flying more than 1,300 miles to each of the three games located further to the north.
Despite traveling more than other countries, the US team feels that this will be an advantage, giving their experience traveling for games in the MLS across multiple time zones and great distances. Michael Bradley is quoted in the Houston Chronicle: “When you talk about playing in the heat, the travel, it doesn’t bother us, and not only does it not bother us, it excites us to see that now the other teams are so worried about it.”
Using the air distances in this table, the United States team will fly 8,866 miles round trip to the three venues in Natal, Manaus, and Recife. That’s nearly 400 miles more than the next greatest travel schedule, and more than double the average for the 32 teams at the World Cup (4,414 round trip miles on average from home base city to games).
MEXICO WILL BE MAKING THREE LONG TRIPS BY CHOICE
The next team in travel distance is no stranger to the United States. Mexico will fly 8,468 miles round trip from its home base near Sao Paulo as well. Mexico, though, could have minimized its travel in a major way by choosing a different home base. All of Mexico’s games are in the three cities on the Northeast coast, located within 400 miles of each other. Had Mexico chosen to set up near Recife (near where Ghana and Greece will be camped), they would have had one of the two shortest travel schedules, joining Belgium, who get to play all three games near Sao Paulo.
Mexico instead opted to move south, presumably, to get away from the relatively hotter regions. To put this in some perspective for an American audience, it would be the equivalent of Mexico setting up base camp in Minneapolis, while playing three games in Florida over the course of 11 days.
Italy also joins Mexico in the travel department, playing in the same three venues as the United States, while basing near Rio de Janeiro.
CUP HOLDERS SPAIN DREW (RELATIVELY) BETTER CLIMATES
Winter is coming! In Brazil, though, that still means heat and humidity at many venues. Not all, though. There is a diversity in the weather that teams will face in the World Cup, with the relatively cooler locations in the south and along the coast (Rio de Janeiro). In looking at the 10-day forecasts for the World Cup host cities, only Curitiba averages less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Porto Alegre, the southernmost venue, comes in at 71 degrees.
At the opposite end, Natal is the warmest venue on average (93 degrees), but the humidity in inland cities like Manaus will probably make things even more difficult. All told, 7 of the 12 cities hosting the Group Stages have an average temperature of 85 degrees or warmer over the next ten days. Spain, the reigning champs, joins France as the only two teams that do not play in one of those warmer cities. Both venture north to Salvador, which has more moderate temperatures along the Atlantic, but get all of their games along the coast.
In contrast, Cameroon, Greece, Ghana, England, Colombia, Uruguay, and hosts Brazil all play their games in those 7 “warmer” cities and will have to consistently battle the heat.
Here’s a summary of the total round trip travel distances from nearest major city to each team’s home base and all three matches, as well as the average daily high temperature in the cities where each team will play.
EUROPEAN TEAMS HAVE NOT PERFORMED WELL IN SOUTH AMERICA, BUT IT’S BEEN AWHILE
All of the travel distance and temperature challenges in a short span will provide a unique challenge for European based players used to playing in the relatively cooler winter months and with far less distance between match venues. Historically, European teams have not performed as well in World Cups away from home, particularly when they have been in South America.
Four years ago, I looked at the potential for this in the South Africa tournament. It presented many unknowns (being played in the Southern Hemisphere, but not in South America, being played in a country that was isolated from even the rest of the African nations participating in the tournament). European teams struggled, until the top teams reached the quarterfinals. Only three of them got there (Spain, Netherlands, Germany), while four from South America advanced. Then, the European survivors swept the quarters, and Netherlands met Spain in the title.
Over the last two World Cups played outside Europe (2002, 2010), only 7 of the 16 quarterfinalists came from Europe. Italy faltered twice. France had two embarrassing showings. Plenty of middling European countries failed to advance.
Add those recent performances to the history of European teams in South America, and many of the favorites may not be quite as secure as we think. European teams went a combined 12 wins, 8 ties, and 17 losses against non-European competition in the 1962 and 1978 World Cups.
Of course, it has been 36 years.
That was so long ago that only 16 teams participated in the World Cup, almost all from Europe and South America. Players were far more likely to play in their home countries in the lead-up, a fact that no doubt provided more home continent advantage. For example, Argentina, champions in 1978, had only one player in star forward Mario Kempes who played professionally outside Argentina. In contrast, this year’s Argentina team has only three players that play in Argentina and are not based in Europe for most of the year.
TRAVEL AND WEATHER WON’T DECIDE WORLD CUP, BUT WILL BE A FACTOR
I’ve looked into home field advantage issues in other sports, where climate and travel distance do play a factor. They are not outcome determinative, but over the course of several years and outcomes, do tend to exist across sports. We have, in the past, seen a Continental advantage in the World Cup, and you have probably heard several times that no European team has won a World Cup in the Western Hemisphere. Spain in 2010 was the first European team to win a World Cup outside of Europe.
I do expect that European teams won’t perform as well as they have in Europe (where 78% of the quarterfinalists, and 14 of the last 16 semifinalists were from Europe). However, individual teams can still rise up. Germany reached the 1986 Final in the heat of Mexico, and 16 years later, in Japan and Korea. Italy got off to a slow start in 1994 but eventually reached the Final, losing on penalty kicks. Teams like Belgium (’86), Bulgaria (’94), and Turkey (’02) did make improbable runs to the semifinals.
The World Cup in Brazil will be a test, yes, of talent, but also of endurance, fitness, and team health, as most teams travel around the country and have to play in humid conditions. The teams that surprise and advance will likely combine all of those factors and handle them, and the emotions and pressure that come with the Group stage cauldron, where one bad result could mean elimination.