Thu, Jun 14, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Morales takes soccer to new level

AP , SAJAMA, BOLIVIA

Weaving around icy boulders and scrambling to avoid sliding down the snow-covered mountainside, Bolivian President Evo Morales and his staff played a soccer match on Bolivia's highest peak on Tuesday, gleefully thumbing their noses at FIFA's ban on high-altitude games.

"Wherever you can make love, you can play sports," said Morales, who was winded but smiling after scoring the winning goal against a team of local mountaineers.

The match on the uneven field 6,000m high in the Andes lasted only about 15 minutes, including the time spent recovering the ball after it skittered away down the slope.

Citing concerns for players' health and an unfair home advantage for highland teams, FIFA decided last month to prohibit international tournaments and World Cup qualifying matches above 2,500m. That rules out the capitals of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and the stadiums of leading teams in Peru, Chile and Mexico.

The decision has given Morales a chance to rally Bolivia around his twin passions of soccer and South American unity while showing his knack for political stagecraft.

Morales and the other players flew by helicopter up to a rocky saddle below the peak of Sajama, a dormant Andean volcano that rises to 6,542m above sea level.

Experts in high-altitude medicine acknowledge that highland teams have a distinct edge over visitors, but dismissed any serious health risks.

Travelers often feel dizzy and exhuasted on arrival in La Paz, the world's highest capital, and "the last think you think of is, `Let's go sprint for 90 minutes,'" said Robert Roach, head of the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado. "You feel bad. But that's just because of the hard work, it's not because there's anything dangerous to it."

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