Out of thin air | Where llamas and footballers prosper, FIFA fears to tread

One certainty is the fresh jolt of solidarity that FIFA’s action has given Bolivian society, divided over President Evo Morales and his championing of indigenous rights, nationalizing of key industries and flirtations with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Morales has proclaimed that “he who wins at high altitude, stands tall” and has convened an Andean coalition to counter the Zurich maneuverings. Former president Carlos Mesa extols Morales’s credentials as an indigenous Aymara and as one raised at high altitude, herding llamas, farming, performing odd jobs and, at 14, organizing his own football team (“El argumento médico está estadí­sticamente desbaratado,” La Prensa, May 28). (See Susan Ellison, “Luz y verdad,” 4 May 05, for more on the Aymara.)

The South American split, between the Andes and the low-lying giants Argentina and Brazil, is said to have origins in the recent politicking of Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo. The red-and-black (rojinegra) quickly were identified as the villians within the Bolivian press. Flamengo vice president Kléber Leite was quoted thanking Confederação Brasileira de Futebol (CBF) for helping to bring about the new prohibition (“Brazil está bajo sospecha por el veto de la FIFA a la altura,” La Razón, May 29), motivated by Flamengo’s still-clear recollection of a Feb 14 draw away to Bolivian side Real Potosí­ in Copa Libertadores. The game took place at nearly 4,000m, and Flamengo players required oxygen treatments.

Morales and other Bolivian politicians and football authorities have cast the dispute in terms of human rights and the game’s universality. “There are people who live, who work and who have family in places of high elevation, who have a right to play football,” Jorge Pacheco, president of The Strongest, told El Diario of La Paz.

In contrast to the underhanded dealings abroad—La Prensa, another La Paz daily, confirmed May 29 that FIFA based its decision on a verbal recommendation of its medical committee, not on written findings—Bolivia’s football infrastructure points to its own reports from the mid- to late 1990s when concerns were raised about high-altitude competition. In particular, South American clubs objected following the qualifying sequence for the 1994 World Cup finals in the USA. Instead of a continent-wide qualifying format, Bolivia advanced to the finals stage from a group that also included Ecuador and Brazil. It was Bolivia’s only qualification in its history.

Former president Mesa authored a study in 1996 that set out with statistics and medical evidence the country’s case for the safety of high-altitude football. He says that the data, showing the absence of high-altitude sickness among both low-lying and Andean clubs in the time that the Bolivian game has been fully professional (since 1977), are still relevant to the present. He also issues a plea for the current government to treat the FIFA stricture as a critical priority, uniting all segments of the population in opposition:

International games involving the national team, games in the Copa Libertadores, in the Copa Sudamericana. Of what are we talking! The international impact is widespread. To eliminate more than 70 percent of the international stadiums in a country, as is the case in Bolivia, seems to me very grave. For a strategic reason, and here I am following the federation president and the technical director of the national side, there is justification for retaining La Paz as a setting for qualifying matches, and in the experience that I had in 1996 and 2000 we received the solidarity of the entire country. I assume that this is a national defense.

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