Kicking Into Thin Air
June 25, 2007
La Paz, Bolivia
swears playing soccer at high altitude can’t hurt you. Lying flat on my back on
the floor of my apartment after another loss to the Bolivian president and his
team of retired World Cup ringers, I’m inclined to agree.
Sure, I’ve got a
twitchy, lung-deep cough, a pair of knotted legs and a cleat-smashed big toe.
But if a low-country reporter whose only regular exercise is typing really fast
can hack his way through a soccer game up here at 11,800 feet above sea level,
then what is Pele whining about?
The Brazilian soccer god
has joined many of his lowland countrymen in supporting a recent decision by
FIFA to ban international matches above 8,200 feet, excluding the capitals of
Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador as well as the stadiums of top teams in Peru,
Chile, and Mexico.
Based on somewhat
arbitrarily defined health risks (why not ban games in extreme heat or cold?),
the ruling aims to undo the highland teams’ considerable home-field advantage
over their visiting lowland rivals. While provoking howls of protest across the
Andes, the measure has drawn support from fans and officials alike in flatland
futbol giants Argentina and Brazil, with one Brazilian soccer official even
hailing the altitude ban as “a victory for humankind.”
fighting words in Bolivia, whose poor but proud soccer fans are generally
accustomed to considering themselves part of humankind. The day after the ban
was announced, Morales summoned the foreign press to the presidential palace
and fired back: “He who wins at altitude wins with dignity; he who fears
altitude has no dignity.”
During the press
conference I reminded the president he still owed us foreign correspondents a
chance to redeem our own dignity after a blurry 11-1 or 12-1 whipping he and
his boys gave us last October. Evo grinned at the challenge, and immediately
added us to the ticket for a nationwide high-altitude sports rally late last
The day began
with Evo hopping on a trampoline on the street in front of the presidential
palace not long after sunup, and the president went on to play three other
soccer games before our own.
If all the action
wore the man down, it was hard to tell. Evo’s only 47 years old, and though
sporting an age-appropriate thickness around the middle, he’s fit enough to run
his administration on a relentless dawn-to-midnight schedule, taking his
vacations only in 90 minute breaks on the soccer pitch. He’s an able player,
strong if not flashy, prowling the top of the box while younger staffers and
the aging stars of Bolivia’s 1994 World Cup team lead the attack down the
When the crossing
pass comes his way, he is quick to leap for a header and happy to mix it up in
front of the goal. Last year one defender accidentally broke his nose.
particular afternoon, we journalists escaped La Paz’s Hernando Siles Stadium
with only a 2-0 defeat, a moral victory given our own rudderless defense
(everyone wants to guard the president; no one can guard the World Cup guys.)
Evo has since
continued his protest against the FIFA ban with games at the foot of a
disappearing Andean glacier, on an icy slope 19,700 feet up the slope of a
dormant volcano, and against Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte at
month, Evo faced off against a team of Brazilian diplomats in the manicured
garden of the Brazilian ambassador’s La Paz mansion. As waiters in white gloves
and string ties served caipirinhas and fried cheese, the president and his
security guards gamely thrashed the diplomats 6-0.
Brazilians’ wives and children were unable to resist the occasional “Evo!”
Being that close
to a head of state out there yelling and sweating like anyone else can tend to
make one a bit giddy, no matter who you’re supposed to be rooting for. During
our own game, a rare press corps attack left Evo and I idling together at
midfield, hands on hips, eyes following the action downfield. Or his were: I
was staring at Evo instead, soaking up an exclusive presidential moment and
searching my asphyxiated brain for a clever remark.
In our wheezing
silence I suddenly saw how plainly human he seemed, free for a rare moment of
all the handlers, the guards, the howling media dog pack and the fleet of
tinted-window Land Cruisers. The baggage that so clearly divides us on any
other day had vanished, freeing us from the roles of president and reporter,
Indian and gringo, former llama herder and spoiled college boy. We were just a
couple dudes — “humankind,” to say it fancy — running around a grassy field in
To complain that
my lungs were on fire would have only killed the moment.
I rotated out a
few minutes later. As the referee blew the final whistle, and security guards
in red and green tracksuits bolted on to the field to surround the president.
The television scrum shouldered their cameras and galloped after them, swearing
at each others’ snaking microphone cables. And next to me on the sidelines a
round-bellied school teacher suddenly appeared, exhorting his class of
wide-eyed 10-year-old girls to get out there and grab Evo for an autograph.
At his barked
command, they broke onto the field at a dead sprint, utterly oblivious to the
allegedly treacherous Andean air. “Run!” the teacher bellowed. “Run!”