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Sunday, April 18, 2010
Updated: April 19, 9:17 AM ET
Cooler weather will play a role

By Gus Martins
Special to ESPN.com

Former Argentina striker Mario Kempes still has fond memories of leading his host country to the 1978 World Cup. Kempes, who finished with a tournament-high six goals, had just completed his season in Spain before returning home to the cool South American winter that had facilitated a memorable tournament.

"It affected me very positively," he said. "Obviously you play better in cooler temperature because you don't get as tired as you do in hot weather. You don't feel that your mouth is dry all the time and that your legs are weak."

With the kickoff to the FIFA World Cup 2010 less than two months away, players from the 32 competing nations heading to South Africa are likely to find agreeable temperatures where winter conditions could lead to high-tempo games and quick physical recoveries.

Weather
Don't expect temperatures this hot in the South Africa winter.

U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, fresh from the Confederations Cup trial run in South Africa last summer, agreed that the cooler weather will make a difference in the quality of play. But he pointed to other factors in a country that is slightly less than twice the size of Texas and where morning temperatures in some cities can be below freezing but warm up considerably by afternoon.

"In the first round last year we played in the same venues -- Rustenburg, Tshwane-Pretoria and Johannesburg-Ellis Park -- that we'll be playing this year," he said. "I think we have to be as aware of altitude as weather conditions. Johannesburg is 1,750 meters [nearly 1.1 miles], Rustenburg is 1,400 meters, and Pretoria is 1,200 meters high. Because we had the qualifiers last year, we got in five or six days before our first game.

"This year it will be more like 12 days, and we feel good about the time we'll have to get re-acclimatized," Bradley said. "All teams are thinking about the altitude, and decisions have to be made accordingly. We've done our preparation with all that in mind. We've had a chance to travel around South Africa. I've been to most of the venues. We played the semifinal last year in Bloemfontein. It was a little colder than what we have seen in other venues. I've not been to Cape Town, where it's colder and rainier and different in climate."

Bradley says he vividly remembers the first-round temperatures of last year's tournament but refused to say whether the cooler climate helped his team as it advanced to the final game before losing 3-2 to Brazil. The weather for the team's first-round games in Pretoria was 65 degrees, and it was 57 degrees in Rustenburg and 46 degrees in Johannesburg.

Cape Town and Port Elizabeth are known for incessant rain in June and Bloemfontein's early mornings can be below freezing. The temperatures -- between 30 degrees and 70 degrees -- will vary depending on start times. These temperatures are a far cry from USA '94, where the oppressive heat of cities like Orlando, Washington, Dallas, New York and Los Angeles was often in the mid-80s or the 90s with oppressive humidity.

"Overall, the fact we are playing in the Southern hemisphere in their wintertime will mean temperatures will be cooler," Bradley said. "It will be great for the quality of the tournament. The tempo of the games will be high. It will be similar to what you see in March and April in a lot of places in Europe, and the players appreciate that. So many of our players play in Europe and are already accustomed to this situation. The extreme heat is difficult to deal with."

Despite the cooler climates that could give athletes an edge, Boston-based orthopedic surgeon Diane English said the teams' medical and physical training staffs will have to monitor certain concerns. Muscle overuse and improper warm-ups in cold weather can lead to muscle pulls.

"What happens in the cold is, if you are standing there on the sidelines and the muscle is cold, you are more likely to damage it, popping it or partially tearing it again or getting inflammation from pulling it if you don't properly prepare yourself," English said. "That's more common in the cold.

"Obviously, if you are playing in hot weather you are sweating a lot more and lose more fluid," she said. "The other thing is you lose a lot of salt, and a lot of people drink a lot of water but don't rehydrate with salt solution. If you don't have the right salt and water combination, you are more likely to send your muscles into spasm. This can also happen in cold weather.

"If you combine cold, salt loss and fatigue, those are all things that make it more likely for the muscle to be injured. But if you really know how to keep up and learn how to regulate getting water and salt ahead of time, before you get into trouble, then there's really no problem."

English, a surgeon for the Boston College football team, said soccer players' physiology and overall conditioning combined with the professional training they receive enables them to withstand rigorous tournaments.

"They tend to be strong, have good lung capacity and flexibility," she said. "Football running backs are like that. Soccer players are one of the best all-around, well-rounded kind of athlete. You do tend to choose the sport that suits your body type and physical capabilities."

Bradley said he still remembers watching games from Argentina in 1978, and his primary memory is the speed of play.

"This tournament could have a similar feel to Argentina 1978," Bradley said. "It's a World Cup without so much documentation. But I remember watching games on closed circuit, and it was a really good World Cup. It was fast-paced and wide open. So this one should also be exciting for the fans and for the players."

Kempes said there's little reason to think the temperate weather won't produce a better all-around tournament, as it did some 32 years ago in Argentina, when temperatures averaged about 50 degrees.

"I think what is going to happen is you can watch better soccer because in the cold weather you don't get as tired and at the end of the game you can actually have more energy," said Kempes, who is now an analyst for ESPN Deportes. "There are people who are used to the heat and like it more than the cold. It depends on the player. Playing every three or four days in a tournament like the World Cup can be challenging, so it makes a difference in the cold weather. Your recuperation is much better in the cold weather."

Gus Martins is a freelance writer who has covered two World Cups and MLS for more than a decade.