19 March, 2008

Get as High as Humanly Possible in Bolivia

The sky’s the limit as Pablo Escobar used to say, but for once in South America, this isn’t about covering oneself in the devil’s dandruff. Yesterday in Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz, the country’s president Evo Morales and some Argentine chap called Diego Maradona hosted a charity football match to not only raise money for the victims of severe flooding in the Andean region, but also to make a stand against Sepp Blatter’s ludicrous decree last week that international games were to have an altitude limit.

FIFA upheld the proposed ban from June 2007 on international fixtures in stadiums located at 2,750 metres above sea level, meaning that Bolivia cannot play qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup in La Paz, located as it is at 3,600 metres. Quite reasonably this has sparked outrage in Bolivia, while it might also affect two other capitals in the continent, Bogota in Columbia and Quito in Ecuador. A stern supporter of South American football, Maradona called the ban “ridiculous and shameful” yesterday before the match, even accusing the FIFA president of “playing with the passion of the Bolivian people.” He continued: “You have to play where you were born. That cannot be forbidden, not even by God and, of course, not even by Blatter.”

Senor Morales, a highly vocal football fan and actually quite a tidy little player himself, has understandably taken this whole ruling as somewhat of a personal affront, even playing a match last year in the Andes at 6,000 metres above sea level to flip the metaphorical bird to FIFA and Blatter. Morales called the rule “an aggression against the peoples, and aggression against sport,” continuing passionately, “football unites peoples but this decision seems to be confronting peoples. FIFA should revise this offensive decision.” It does just appear pretty bizarre for Blatter to step in on a matter such as this, but the official line is that of player safety.

The small print in the ban reads that with an appropriate period of acclimatization, games can take place above the prescribed altitude, but with World Cup qualifiers taking place within the busy domestic schedule, this is simply an unrealistic ideal. Studies into the negative health affects on players unaccustomed to thin air have so far been inconclusive, but apparently the evidence was compelling enough for FIFA big-wigs to rubber stamp the proposal. It begs the question though, if Maradona and Morales (both in their late 40s now) can survive a game in La Paz, surely young and fit current professionals should have nothing to worry about?

At the end of the day, Blatter just seems increasingly out of control, producing unbelievable comments week in week out these days, and this latest ruling is plain insulting. It seems hypocritical too when just last week he released this gem from his mouth: “Football is open for everybody, which is why they made a gay competition in South America. And look at women's football: homosexuality is more popular there.” How can you take someone seriously who says things this moronic? Unfortunately for the Bolivians, at the moment they have to.

Yesterday’s game itself was an exciting affair, as one would expect between select teams of retired Bolivian and Argentinian stars, with incumbent deputy minister of sports, Milton Melgar (who played for Bolivia in the 1994 World Cup finals) even getting involved too. Argentina won the match 7 - 4, with the great man Maradona bagging a swift hat-trick. Senor Morales also got in on the act for Bolivia, but presumably if you’re playing up front with your country’s president, you really go out of your way to make sure he gets his name on the scoresheet. To underline the concurrent charitable cause, an entrance ticket for the game was just a pack of rice, pasta, or powder milk for the flooding victims, and with an attendance of more than 20,000 fans, the drive was a complete success. Thankfully STT was able to get a closing comment from a glorious condor stationed nearby, apparently the Bolivian mascot. He squawked: “This is about solidarity, South American brotherhood.”