Battling the elements in Brazil
"President Blatter," asked a Fortaleza-born journalist during the World Cup draw last December, "in Fortaleza we never play soccer until early evening to avoid the heat. Why," the journalist continued, referencing the local times, "have you scheduled matches at 1 p.m. or 4 p.m.?"
FIFA president Sepp Blatter's predictable answer mentioned Brazil's time difference with the body's biggest market, European TVs. Given that those kickoff times won't change, some squads will have to prepare for a grueling mixture of heat and muggy weather, tiring factors to be added to the huge distances between certain venues.
The U.S. men's national team, for instance, are likely to play all three of their group-stage matches under extreme conditions after long flights, while more fortunate squads such as Belgium and Argentina enjoy fairer climates and more time to train. In this Brazilian World Cup, it's not just the opposing team that can defeat you. Here's a closer look at the obstacles many teams will face, from harsh weather to ridiculous travel. (All times local.)
HANDICAPPING THE 12 VENUES
Manaus: Hot, humid and distant from everywhere, no one wanted to play in Manaus. England manager Roy Hodgson had the guts to say it in public and was rewarded with a late-afternoon match versus Italy there. The USMNT will face Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in the Amazonian capital -- a 3 p.m. kickoff time.
Fortaleza: A 1.2-mile, no-shade, dehydrating walk to the stadium under unforgiving sun gives the average supporter a fair idea of how players will feel during the match.
Natal: Its design supposedly resembles the surrounding burning-hot dunes. The USMNT will try to defeat Ghana there for the first time in their history after losses in each of the past two World Cups.
Recife: "Playing here at 4 p.m. was inhuman," said Spain's Sergio Busquets after a Confederations Cup match in June 2013. The USMNT will also enjoy that privilege, facing Germany at an even hotter kickoff time: 1 p.m.
Salvador: In a run-down neighbourhood, the bright stadium looks like a huge UFO. The replay of the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands will take place under 4 p.m.'s heat.
Cuiaba: Not humid but extremely hot, the Arena Pantanal has all the makings to become a white elephant once the World Cup is over. Cuiaba has no teams in the first or second national divisions, and the stadium hosts 43,000. You can do the math.
Rio de Janeiro: Although its summers can make anyone sweat, Rio's winters are quite mild. The beautiful new Maracana is the perfect place for the final on July 13.
Belo Horizonte: The first stadium to be ready to host one of the semifinals, the new Mineirao (Big Miner) allows for a gentle breeze to refresh the pitch.
Brasilia: The Brazilian capital, which lacks decent football teams, has the nicest winter among all venues.
Sao Paulo: The opening match of the tournament between Brazil and Croatia is scheduled to take place here June 12, when the weather is typically gentle and dry.
Porto Alegre: Home to Internacional FC, the Beira-Rio stadium sits by the Guaiba river. A few mosquitoes should be its only annoyance.
Curitiba: The coldest of the 12 venues sits some 3,000 feet above sea level. Lucky Honduras will enjoy the extreme experience of going straight from Curitiba's chilly evenings to Manaus' extreme heat and humidity.
CONTRASTING FORTUNES: USA vs. Belgium
USA will travel: From their base camp in Sao Paulo to Natal and back (1,450 miles each way); from Sao Paulo to Manaus and back (1,670 miles each way); and from Sao Paulo to Recife and back (1,320 miles each way). Total of 8,880 miles. Adding their flying time to the commute to and from the airports, the USMNT will spend 35 hours travelling in 10 days. All three of their matches are to be played in oppressive conditions.
Belgium will travel: From their base camp in Sao Paulo to Belo Horizonte and back (310 miles each way); from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and back (220 miles each way); and then will play their third match in Sao Paulo. Total of 1,060 miles. Adding their flying time to the commute to and from the airports, Belgium will spend 16 hours travelling in 10 days. All their matches to be played in three gentle-climate stadia.
* Flight hours: assumes an average speed of 550 mph.
** Commute time: assumes two hours (one to go to the stadium, one to come back) per match played in the same city as the base camp, and six hours per match played in a different city (2x one hour to go to the airport, plus 2x one hour advance to take flight, plus 2x one hour to go to the hotel/stadium in the city where the match will be played).
SIX OF THE BEST: Things to remember
Some teams have taken steps to make sure that they are as comfortable as possible for the duration of the tournament; some might be in for a shock.
1) Smart planning ...
Germany, Switzerland, Croatia, Greece and Ghana established their base camps in the northeast to acclimatize to hot, humid weather and thus cut their amount of travel by half.
2)... And not-so-smart planning
Spain chose Curitiba -- by far the chilliest location, with temperatures as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) in June -- as their base camp, becoming the only World Cup team "in the cold." If they get to the final, the Spaniards will have to go through at least two matches in "stifling" stadiums, with the corresponding weather shock.
3) South Americans rule in hot weather
All seven World Cups played in the Americas saw a South American team prevail: Brazil (3), Argentina (2) and Uruguay (2). Four European teams got to the final five times (Italy twice, and Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic once each), losing 13-5 on aggregate.
4) Glimmer of hope for cold countries
In the 1994 World Cup, the not-very-tropical Sweden reached the semifinals undefeated, having played in: Pasadena, Calif. (drew with Cameroon), Dallas (defeated Saudi Arabia), and Stanford, Calif. (defeated Romania in the penalty shootout). In the semis, again in Pasadena, they gave Brazil a run for their money but ended up defeated by a master strike from Romario.
5) Timeouts may be needed
Concerned with the level of dehydration his players felt during the 2013 Confederations Cup, Italy manager Cesare Prandelli in December suggested the introduction of timeouts for the World Cup. In February, FIFA approved two two-minute timeouts, one per half, at the 30th and 75th minutes of the match -- and only in games in which the referee and FIFA's physician decide that stops are sensible because of weather conditions.
6) Full-court press? Better think twice.
Asked whether some teams would have to change their approach in heat and humid stadia, Oscar Celada, Spain's team physician, said that "reducing the players' effort by modifying the team's style of play is definitely an option to save energy and avoid premature fatigue." Don't be surprised to see Germany awaiting the USMNT in their own half!
No matter what the temperature gauge says, the humidity in a stadium will make it feel worse. Here's what the temperature could feel like: