Imagine the NFL deciding that Green Bay could no longer host professional football games. Sorry, Cheese-heads, but extreme cold is dangerous and unfair to visiting teams. Now envision Wisconsin's reaction, enlarge it to a national scale, and you'll have some idea of the sentiment in Bolivia since last Sunday. That's when the soccer's world governing body, FIFA, announced a ban on staging international matches at altitudes higher than 2,500 meters (about 8,200 ft.) because of the health risks posed to players unaccustomed to the altitude. The decree rules out home games in at least five stadiums in Bolivia, two in Peru, one in Ecuador and one in Colombia.
"Absurd!"; "Degrading!"; "An attack on our people and way of life," are just some of the responses heard in La Paz from President Evo Morales and local soccer officials all the way down to street vendors. Within hours of the ruling, Bolivia had mobilized, holding emergency cabinet meetings and press conferences, and launching mass letter-writing campaigns.
Thousands of children flooded out of La Paz schools early Wednesday morning chanting "Let us play!," while police units did aerobics in the park. President Evo Morales and his "team" (cabinet members and former Bolivian pros who often join him in friendly matches against local teams in rural villages) played a quadruple-header, including three games in the 11,735-ft.-high national stadium. Many of the spectators sported a T-shirt depicting a victorious Morales standing on a soccer field above the words "Bolivia is Soccer"; on the back, "No to the Veto; Yes to Sports!"
Commentators on the streets sensed a conspiracy: "It's those Brazilians," noted taxi-driver Juan Gonzales, even though the ruling came from FIFA President Joseph Blatter in Zurich, reelected this week to a third consecutive term in office. "They and the Argentines pressured FIFA because they don't like that they lose sometimes when they play in Bolivia."
The mighty Brazilians have certainly suffered more than their fair share of upset defeats in Bolivia's thin air. In 1993, their national team lost here to Bolivia the first time in history that Brazil lost in a World Cup qualifying round; and in 2000 it happened again. This year, Brazilian club team Flamengo lost to Bolivia's Real Potosi in a match played at 12,000 feet, with a number of Flamengo players needing oxygen treatment to recover after the game. So the Brazilians have not hidden their joy at the new FIFA ruling.
Bolivians also point out that the medical report on which FIFA based its decision is not exactly solid science. Rather than demonstrating that high altitude poses a threat to players, according to Bolivian news reports on the report, it admits there is little real health risk and that altitude acclimatization is so personal that generalizations can't be made.
"High-altitude international soccer competition has never caused a player serious health problems and it certainly has never killed anyone," notes Bolivian sports medicine specialist Dr. Guillermo Aponte. "On the contrary, high heat and humidity has cost several lives. If FIFA really wanted to protect players they wouldn't be focusing on altitude."
Health, though, is only part of the issue. In La Paz, where one flight of stairs can feel like 10, it's impossible to deny the home-court advantage. Still, high-altitude Bolivian home teams lose just as much as they win.
The other affected countries, plus Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, have demanded the ruling's reversal. But Morales' government has made the battle a political priority, resuscitating the international Committee in Defense of the Altitude (first created in 1996 when FIFA tried to ban games above 3,000 meters but revoked the decision because of mass protest). And it's not a lost cause: FIFA has allowed that if the Latin American regional soccer federation can, before the June 15 FIFA executive committee meeting, produce medical evidence proving that high-altitude play is not a health risk, the decision will be repealed.
Meanwhile, the unifying effect of the soccer snub certainly has its political advantages. "We can use this to overcome our regional differences," commented 16-year-old Sandra Reyes, reflecting on the east vs. west internal conflict that threatens to tear apart her country.
"Yeah! We've got to unite by all playing more soccer," sang the chorus of teenagers surrounding Reyes. Clad in their school's soccer uniform, the youngsters had just spent the day watching their President take several long shots on goal.