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Bolivia sees rule on soccer as height of folly

May 30, 2007|Oscar Ordonez and Patrick J. McDonnell | Special to The Times

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — A decision by the world soccer body FIFA to ban international matches at altitudes above 8,200 feet to protect players' health and ensure competitiveness has drawn fierce protests from soccer-crazed Andean nations.

The decision dealt a particular blow to the international soccer aspirations of Bolivia, whose administrative capital, La Paz, sits at almost 12,000 feet. High-altitude stadiums elsewhere in Bolivia likewise provide an edge to Bolivian squads more accustomed to the lower barometric pressure, which decreases oxygen absorption.

"He who wins at altitude, wins with dignity," said Bolivian President Evo Morales, an avid soccer fan. "He who fears altitude has no dignity."

Morales, who still plays pickup soccer games, pledged to send a delegation to FIFA's headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, to protest the ban and seek to reverse the decision, which he called discriminatory.

In a letter sent Tuesday to FIFA, Morales labeled the measure "an attack against the legitimate right of the communities" and a violation of international rights guaranteed by the United Nations.

Major street protests are planned here Thursday against the measure, the press reported, and Morales intends to participate in a soccer match underscoring the nation's discontent with the decision.

A media group in La Paz unveiled plans to send 1 million letters of protest to the FIFA president, Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, who was denounced here for his action, taken Sunday.

Other countries affected will be Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, each of which has stadiums above the new altitude limit. Mexico City's famed Aztec Stadium sits below 8,200 feet, but Toluca, among Mexico's most successful club teams, plays at a venue above the altitude limit. Protests poured in from the other Andean nations.

"We will defend to the death our right to play football at altitudes above" the new limit, Luis Chiriboga, an Ecuadorean soccer official, told reporters, calling the FIFA decision absurd.

Ecuador's capital, Quito, about 9,200 feet above sea level, provided a friendly venue last year for the Ecuadorean national team, which qualified for the World Cup in Germany.

All of the nations affected, including Bolivia, also have stadiums at lower altitudes. But Morales and others argue that there is no more reason to ban highaltitude games here than there would be to ban matches in tropical Brazil because of the heat.

The high-altitude stadiums traditionally have been viewed as offering an extra home-field advantage for underdog home teams.

Bolivia's national team has posted some notable victories on its home turf against powerhouse squads from Brazil and Argentina, sparking celebrations here and dismay in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.

In February, Bolivia's Real Potosi tied a Brazilian team, Flamengo, in a Copa Libertadores tournament match played at more than 13,000 feet. Brazilian players had to use oxygen on the sidelines, and officials of the club complained vociferously afterward.

FIFA authorities said their decision to ban the high-altitude stadiums was based on advice from physicians about the dangers to players unaccustomed to the thin air.

"I know there will be complaints about this, especially from South America, but we have to think of the health of the players first," Blatter told reporters. "It also leads to a distortion if matches are played at such a level."

Many here cited the Copa Libertadores match as the tipping point for FIFA, and distraught fans directed their anger at Brazil and Argentina.

"This is an imposition from the great powers of South American football," said Juan Pablo Paucara, 25, an agronomy student.

"We have to organize ourselves and go to the streets to defend our rights to play soccer."


Special correspondent Ordonez reported from La Paz and Times staff writer McDonnell from Buenos Aires. Andres D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.

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