Bolivia's leader protests FIFA ban

President Evo Morales played a soccer match on Bolivia's highest peak , gleefully thumbing their noses at an international ban on high-altitude games.

updated: June 14, 2007 14:26 IST
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Sajama, Bolivia:

Weaving around icy boulders and scrambling to avoid sliding down the snow-covered mountainside, President Evo Morales and his staff played a soccer match on Bolivia's highest peak on Tuesday, gleefully thumbing their noses at an international ban on high-altitude games.

"If you want to play sports, it's possible to play sports at any altitude in the world," said Morales, winded but smiling after scoring the winning goal against a team of local mountaineers.

The match on the uneven field 6,000 meters (19,700 feet) high in the Andes lasted only about 15 minutes, including the time spent recovering the ball after it skittered away down the slope.

Citing concerns for players' health and an unfair home advantage for highland teams, FIFA, soccer's international governing body, decided last month to prohibit international tournaments and World Cup qualifying matches above 2,500 meters (8,200 feet). That rules out the capitals of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and the stadiums of leading teams in Peru, Chile and Mexico.

The insult has been deep enough to at least temporarily unite Bolivia, a soccer-mad country often bitterly divided over Morales' populist reforms.

It's also given Morales a chance to rally Bolivia around his twin passions of soccer and South American unity while showing his knack for political stagecraft.

After attending a llama sacrifice for good luck, Morales and the other players flew by helicopter up to a rocky saddle below the peak of Sajama, a dormant Andean volcano that rises to 6,542 meters (21,463 feet).

Experts in high-altitude medicine acknowledge that highland teams have a distinct edge over visitors, but dismissed any serious health risks.

Travelers often feel bad on arrival in La Paz, the world's highest capital, and "the last think you think of is, 'Let's go sprint for 90 minutes,'" said Dr Robert Roach, head of the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado. "You feel bad. But that's just because of the hard work, it's not because there's anything dangerous to it."