Lofty discussions | Morales’s maneuvering in Zurich earns reprieve for La Paz

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The Globo network in February reports on Flamengo’s visit to Real Potosí­ in Copa Libertadores, a 2–2 draw. Toward the end of the report, Flamengo players are seen receiving oxygen and collapsing from the strains of high altitude. Potosí­, Bolivia, is 4,070m, or 2½ miles, above sea level.

Zurich, Switzerland | Is it safe to play football on the Andean altiplano or the Tibetan plateau? FIFA has not decided yet, but it continues to modify its judgment, originally decreed in May, that FIFA competitions shall not be staged above 2,500m (see Jun 15).

On Jun 27, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said medical consultations had influenced the governing body’s executive committee in raising the limit to 3,000m, thus excluding Bogotá, Quito and portions of Mexico from the high-altitude ban. In a convoluted statement at a Zurich press conference—see podcast below—Blatter said FIFA would only intervene in World Cup qualifiers. Qualifying in South America begins in September, by which time, Blatter said on Jul 5, the “topic … must be resolved in a very logical way.”

“We do not want to keep people from playing football,” Blatter has said on several occasions, making one wonder why FIFA has tried to devise a solution to a problem that does not exist. At the same Jun 27 press briefing at which he proposed a FIFA-sponsored conference in late October to consider scientific evidence on high-altitude sport—a conference now seemingly on the back burner—Blatter acknowledged that “this is not a scientific or medical decision, it is a sports/political decision.”

Morales and Blatter meet for a low-key, media-friendly kickabout on Jun 28 in Zurich. Both appear to violate Law 4 governing players’ equipment. (Andreas Meier | Reuters)

The political aspects triumphed the following day when Bolivian president Evo Morales jetted from Caracas, Venezuela, where he had been attending opening ceremonies of Copa América, to meet privately with Blatter at FIFA headquarters. Afterward, Morales appeared to have won a concession allowing FIFA matches to be played in La Paz. “The winner is our country, the winner is La Paz,” Bolivian soccer chief Carlos Chavez exulted. The La Paz exception was made explicit on Jul 6.

As part of our third podcast, native Bolivian and Global Voices regional editor Eduardo Ávila comments on Morales’s unaffected passion for the sport. Ávila recalls attending a barbeque when Morales was campaigning for the presidency. “He was a different person on the football field,” Ávila says. Morales picks out the number 10 jersey, likes to score and frequently provides the winning goal in his matches, whether by accident or design. “That’s one of his signatures. He wants to play football against journalists, play against ex–football players, play against kids from the street. That’s sort of a uniter.”

Whether the country is fully united by Morales’s lobbying on football remains in question. The nation, as Ávila notes, is divided ethnically among mestizo and the various indigenous communities (Aymara, Quechua, Guaraní) despite the rallying cry from the 1952 revolution, “Somos todos bolivianos” (see Andrew Canessa, “Reproducing Racism: Schooling and Race in Highland Bolivia,” Race, Ethnicity, and Education 7 [Jul 04]: 185–204). Morales himself is Aymara and cherishes his highland roots, although Canessa’s article on schooling in highland communities points to the gradual loss of Andean traditions due in part to a classroom quest for uniformity in thought and language. “The mountain spirits have left us,” mourns one young woman.

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